Olympic sprinter ‘safe’ in Austria after refusing to return to Belarus

Tokyo/Vienna: Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was safe in Vienna on Wednesday, Austrian officials said, after she flew in from Tokyo under Polish diplomatic protection three days since refusing her team’s order to go home early from the Olympics.

The apparent Cold War-style defection of an athlete has been one of the major stories of the Games and could further isolate Belarus, which is under Western sanctions after President Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on opponents since last year.

Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, centre, at the airport in Tokyo before her flight to Austria.Credit:AP

After spending two nights in Poland’s embassy, the 24-year-old sprinter walked onto a plane at Tokyo’s Narita airport wearing wearing jeans, a blue top and sunglasses with “I RUN CLEAN” written on them.

“She is safe and is doing well under the circumstances,” Magnus Brunner, Austria’s deputy environment minister, said after her Austrian Airlines flight touched down in Vienna. “She is naturally worried and excited and nervous about what will happen next for her.”

Tsimanouskaya was expected to travel on to Poland, which has granted her a humanitarian visa and another to her husband to join her.

The sprinter caused a furore on Sunday when she said coaches had demanded she pack her bags at the Olympic village and taken her to the airport against her wishes, ordering her home because she had criticised them. She refused to board the flight and sought protection of Japanese police.

“I will not return to Belarus,” she told Reuters at the time.

The Belarus National Olympic Committee (NOC) did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Previously, it said coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors’ advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

She was initially due to fly directly to Warsaw on Wednesday, but a Polish government source said she was switched at the last minute to the Vienna flight after news of her itinerary became public. Concern was high because of an incident in May, when a Ryanair flight was forced to land in Belarus and a dissident journalist arrested, the Polish source said.

Belarus stays quiet

A Belarus interior ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment about Tsimanouskaya’s security. Belarus government officials have said little so far publicly about her case.

The affair has played out amid increased concern for the safety of Lukashenko’s critics, including in neighbouring countries, following a crackdown that has seen tens of thousands of arrests inside Belarus.

Vitaly Shishov, a Belarusian activist living in Ukraine, was found hanged in a park near his home in Kiev early on Tuesday. Ukrainian police have launched a murder investigation, and President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered a review into the safety of Belarus exiles.

Sport plays 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 this year. His website quotes him as saying “Sport is our ideology”.

The International Olympic Committee has started an investigation into Tsimanouskaya’s case and said on Wednesday it had received a report from the Belarusian team.

“The IOC is opening a disciplinary commission to establish the facts in this case and to hear the two officials – Artur Shumak and Yuri Moisevich – who had been allegedly involved in this incident,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Lukashenko’s government of “transnational repression” in the matter.

Police have cracked down on dissent in Belarus following a wave of protests triggered by an election last year which the opposition says was rigged to keep Lukashenko in power.

Belarusian authorities have characterised anti-government protesters as criminals or violent revolutionaries backed by the West, and described the actions of their own law enforcement agencies as appropriate and necessary.

Reuters

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