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Belarusian Sprinter Is Granted Polish Humanitarian Visa After Refusing A Flight Home

Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who reportedly said her team tried to force her to leave Japan after a row during the Olympics, walks with her luggage Monday inside the Polish Embassy in Tokyo.
Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who reportedly said her team tried to force her to leave Japan after a row during the Olympics, walks with her luggage Monday inside the Polish Embassy in Tokyo.

Updated August 3, 2021 at 2:18 AM ET

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was granted a Polish humanitarian visa while seeking political asylum after she refused to board a flight back to her home country from the Tokyo Games.

The 24-year-old sprinter entered the Polish Embassy in Tokyo on Monday, confirmed by Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz on Twitter, one day after Belarusian officials abruptly pulled her from the Olympics and took her to the airport before she could compete in Monday's 200-meter event.

Przydacz said Tsimanouskaya is awaiting a flight to Poland and is "happy and safe" according to another tweet from the Polish Embassy in the U.K.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee said it withdrew Tsimanouskaya from the competition because of her "emotional, psychological state," but Tsimanouskaya told Reuters she was being forced to return home after speaking poorly about her coaches on Instagram.

She is under protection now but will leave for Poland soon

Tsimanouskaya will head to Poland in a day or two after receiving her humanitarian visa, according to Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, which supports athletes who face hardships for voicing political opposition to the country's authoritarian leadership, also confirmed to The Associated Press that Tsimanouskaya plans to seek political asylum in Poland.

Marcin Przydacz, the Polish deputy minister of foreign affairs, tweeted that "Poland will do whatever is necessary to help [Tsimanouskaya] to continue her sporting career."

The Czech Republic has also offered her asylum, according to the country's foreign minister, Jakub Kulhanek.

Belarus is mired in political upheaval

The unfolding drama comes amid an ongoing period of political upheaval in Belarus.

In August 2020, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner of a sixth term in office and began cracking down on political opponents, including Tsikhanouskaya. In a recent example of the government's campaign to silence dissent, Belarusian authorities diverted an international flight to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, prompting condemnation from many countries, including the United States.

Viacorka said Belarusian authorities are trying to "put pressure" on Tsimanouskaya by "threatening her parents" and added that her husband had fled Belarus for Ukraine.

Tsimanouskaya spent Sunday night in an airport hotel after missing the flight from Haneda Airport on Sunday, Reuters reported. The runner told Reuters she was being punished due to "the fact that I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches." She did not criticize Lukashenko or the Belarusian government in the video.

International Olympic Committee spokesperson Mark Adams said during a news conference that the sprinter had sought police protection at the airport and is now safe. "The most important thing at the moment is our duty of care for her," he told reporters.

Questions raised about IOC's ability to protect athletes

Reporters in a news conference Tuesday asked Adams what steps the IOC planned regarding the Belarus Olympic Committee and its' actions.

Adams said a formal investigation was being launched and that the IOC has requested an incident report from Belarus. He told reporters these things take time.

"We need to establish the full facts, we need to hear everyone involved' Adams said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, took to Twitter Tuesday to condemn the actions taken by Belarus and called out Lukashenko by name.

"Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, are an affront to basic rights, and cannot be tolerated," he tweeted.

Adams was also questioned about what the committee was doing to ensure the safety of other athletes. He said "The actions that we have taken together with our partners should hopefully give confidence, not just to Belarusian athletes but all athletes, that the IOC will take their worries and concerns seriously and will act on them."

However, Human Rights Watch argued the Olympics must do more. The rights group urged the IOC to adopt a human rights policy to prevent athlete abuse. The organization called on the committee to stop "pretending" the Olympics aren't political and that athletes can find themselves in danger.

"Athletes like [Tsimanouskaya] do not give up their human rights when they become competitors," an HRW statement read. "That includes freedom of expression and liberty of movement."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.