Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya meets Austrian State Secretary Magnus Brunner during a stop at Schwechat airport in Vienna, Austria, on August 4 2021. Picture: FEDERAL CHANCELLORY OF AUSTRIA/FLORIAN SCHROETTER/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS
Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya meets Austrian State Secretary Magnus Brunner during a stop at Schwechat airport in Vienna, Austria, on August 4 2021. Picture: FEDERAL CHANCELLORY OF AUSTRIA/FLORIAN SCHROETTER/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

Warsaw — Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya decided to defect as she was being driven to a Tokyo airport because her grandmother told her that it wasn't safe to return home to Belarus.

In an exclusive interview with Reuters in Warsaw, she said her family feared she would be sent to a psychiatric ward if she went back to Belarus, and that her grandmother had called her to tell her not to return.

“I have always been far from politics, I didn't sign any letters or go to any protests, I didn't say anything against the Belarusian government,” she said.

“I'm a sportsperson and I didn’t understand anything in political life. I try not to do anything other than a sport in my life and I try my best to not be distracted by politics.

“It may sound cruel because of all the terrible things that happened in Belarus last summer but I was trying to [keep] away from it, but all I have wanted is to go to the Olympics and do my best. I wanted to be in the final and compete for medals.”

The 24-year-old athlete caused a furore on Sunday when she said coaches angry at her criticism had ordered her to fly home from Tokyo. After seeking protection from Japanese police, she flew on Wednesday to Poland instead of Belarus.

Poland, which has long been critical of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and harboured many activists from Belarus, has granted Tsimanouskaya and her husband humanitarian visas, but her grandmother remains there.

“Grandmother called me when they were already driving me to the airport,” the athlete said. “Literally, I had some 10 seconds. She called me, all that she told me was: ‘Please do not come back to Belarus, it's not safe.’”

“That’s it, she hung up,” she said.

Tsimanouskaya's saga, reminiscent of Cold War sporting defections, threatens to further isolate Lukashenko, who is under Western sanctions after a crackdown on opponents since 2020.

The sprinter, who had criticised negligence by her team coaches, spent two nights in Poland's embassy in Japan before flying out to Vienna and then Warsaw on Wednesday.

The Belarus National Olympic Committee (NOC) had said coaches withdrew Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors’ advice about her emotional and psychological state. It did not immediately respond to requests for additional comment on Thursday.

Going into Tokyo, Tsimanouskaya was not among the few Belarusian Olympians who publicly voiced support for the opposition to Lukashenko.

Opposition figures have been prosecuted, jailed or fled since large antigovernment protests against Lukashenko began before he won a sixth presidential term in an election that observers and critics say was rigged. He denies electoral fraud.

The crackdown also extended to elite athletes. Some, including former Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka and decathlete Andrei Krauchanka, were jailed.

Sports play a high-profile role in Belarusian politics under Lukashenko, a hockey player and cross country skier known to compete in televised races in which his opponents fall before crossing the finish line. Lukashenko personally headed the Belarus Olympic committee until he was replaced by his son earlier in 2021. His website quotes him as saying “Sport is our ideology”.

The International Olympic Committee has started an investigation into Tsimanouskaya’s case and said it would hear from the two Belarusian officials allegedly involved.

Reuters

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