A Belarusian female sprinter who has criticised Putin-backed dictator Alexander Lukashenko has claimed Belarusian Olympic officials are trying to force her back home after she complained about her coaches in what is feared to be an attempted kidnapping.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was due to compete in the women’s 200m race on Monday, told Reuters she did not plan to return to Belarus and had sought the protection of Japanese police at Tokyo’s Haneda airport so she would not have to board the flight.
‘I will not return to Belarus,’ she told Reuters in a message over Telegram.
Tsimanouskaya, 24, previously alleged that she was entered into the relay event on Thursday at short notice by Belarusian officials after some team mates were found to be ineligible to compete. She claimed coaching staff had come to her room on Sunday and told her to pack.
The athlete claimed she was taken to the airport before she could run in the 200m and 4x400m relay. A source at the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, which supports athletes jailed or sidelined for their political views, said Tsimanouskaya planned to request asylum in Germany or Austria on Monday.
Tsimanouskaya filmed a video that was published on Telegram by the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, in which she asked the International Olympic Committee to get involved in her case. The IOC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a chilling statement this afternoon, the Belarusian Olympic Committee said that national coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Tokyo Games on doctors’ advice about her ’emotional, psychological state’.
It comes months after Western countries condemned the government of Kremlin-backed strongman Lukashenko – dubbed the last dictator of Europe – after it scrambled a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to hijack a commercial passenger plane so it could arrest a dissident journalist.
Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks with a police officer at Haneda international airport in Tokyo
Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is escorted by police officers at Haneda international airport in Tokyo
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was due to compete in the women’s 200 meters on Monday, told Reuters she did not plan to return to her country and that she had sought the protection of Japanese police at Tokyo’s Haneda airport so she would not have to board the flight
Tsimanouskaya told Reuters from the airport: ‘Some of our girls did not fly here to compete in the 4x400m relay because they didn’t have enough doping tests.
‘And the coach added me to the relay without my knowledge. I spoke about this publicly. The head coach came over to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me.’
Tsimanouskaya said that she had reached out to members of the Belarusian diaspora in Japan to retrieve her at the airport, adding: ‘I think I am safe. I am with the police.’
Dissident journalists said Belarusian state media launched a campaign against her after she criticised Belarus national team’s management on Friday.
Minsk-based journalist Hanna Liubakova said on Twitter: ‘It’s been reported that Kryscina Tsimanouskaya, who publicly criticized the regime and sports officials, is being sent from Tokyo back to Belarus. Apparently, representatives of the Belarusian national team took her to the airport. It looks like kidnapping’.
She later posted a video which appeared to show the athlete at the airport, tweeting: ‘Tsimanouskaya was accompanied to the airport by two members of the Belarusian sports delegation. She is now with the police and volunteers. When asked if she was afraid to fly to #Belarus, Tsimanouskaya answered ‘yes’.’
Tsimanouskaya had previously complained she was entered in the 4x400m relay after some members of the team were found to be ineligible to compete at the Olympics because they had not undergone a sufficient amount of doping tests.
Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is seen at Haneda international airport in Tokyo
Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is escorted by police officers at Haneda international airport
Jailed journalist Roman Protasevich last appeared at a press conference in Minsk in June, telling reporters he felt ‘wonderful’
Putin was virtually the only supporter of Belarus dictator Lukashenko over the hijacking of a Ryanair passenger plane earlier this month which was escorted to Minsk by a fighter jet and forced to land so authorities could arrest a dissident journalist
The incident is reminiscent of the kidnapping of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega in Minsk after Lukashenko scrambled a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to escort a commercial passenger plane back to Belarus.
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania in May when it was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk amid fake reports of an IED on board.
Protasevich was then seen on June 4 in a tearful interview aired on state media in which he confessed to calling for protests last year and praised Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko.
The incident prompted the EU to ban Belarusian airlines, urge EU airlines not to cross Belarusian airspace and threaten tough economic sanctions on Lukashenko’s Kremlin-backed regime.
The British Government instructed all UK planes to cease flying over Belarus. Some countries also imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials over a crackdown on demonstrators and a presidential election last year that the opposition said was massively rigged.
Lukashenko has kept a tight grip on Belarus, a former Soviet state, since 1994. Faced with mass street protests last year over what his opponents called rigged elections, he ordered a violent crackdown on protesters. Lukashenko denies the allegations of vote-rigging.
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23
The incident is reminiscent of the kidnapping of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (pictured) in Minsk after Lukashenko scrambled a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to escort a commercial passenger plane back to Belarus
Belarus was rocked by strikes and weekly street protests after authorities announced that Lukashenko, who has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1994, had secured re-election on August 9, 2020 with 80 per cent of votes
Unusually in a country where elite athletes often rely on government funding, some prominent Belarusian athletes joined the protests. Several were jailed, including Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka. Others lost their state employment or were kicked off national teams for supporting the opposition.
Putin is the only world leader who defended Lukashenko over the hijacking. Russia promised Belarus a £1.06billion loan last year as part of Moscow’s efforts to stabilise its neighbour and longstanding ally. Minsk received a first installment of £352million in October.
Following talks in Sochi, the former-Soviet superpower said it will move ahead with a second £352million loan to Belarus.
In May, the head of NATO linked the Kremlin to the hijack of the Ryanair jet by Belarus having previously described the incident as a ‘state-sponsored hijacking’.
During the Cold War, scores of sports people and cultural figures defected from the Soviet Union and its satellite states during overseas competitions or tours. But the freedom of travel that came with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union saw the need for such dramatic acts dwindle.
In response to the incident today, Haneda police said there was no one immediately available to comment.