“We run free and Belarus will be free.”
These words concluded Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya’s first press conference since her dramatic exit from the Tokyo Olympics earlier this week.
The 24-year-old received a humanitarian visa from Poland after last Sunday’s scandal and arrived safely in the country on Wednesday.
Tsimanouskaya was scheduled to compete in the women’s 200-meter sprint in Tokyo on Monday. But after she criticized the way her team was being handled on social media, officials went to her hotel room on Sunday and told her to pack.
Speaking to reporters in Warsaw on Thursday, Tsimanouskaya said she had spoken briefly with her grandmother on the way to the airport and had been told there was a massive backlash against her in Belarusian state media.
At the airport, fearing retaliation from the authoritarian state if he returned home, he showed the Japanese police at the airport a translated request for help on his phone.
The dissidents contacted three EU member states for help.
Pavel Latushko, a former Belarusian culture minister turned opposition figure who fled to Poland last summer, was involved in arranging for Tsimanouskaya to stay at the Polish Embassy in Tokyo.
“Our goal was to make sure he received a visa and the opportunity to go to one of the EU member states,” he explained. “There was no word on politics. We contacted the German, Austrian and Polish foreign ministries on Sunday.
“It was suggested that Krystsina spend the night in the apartment of one of the Belarusian families residing in Japan. Given the non-standard situation, the Japanese authorities decided that it would be useful and desirable for it to be in a safe and secure location. “
Latushko expressed his thanks at the conference to “all those who cared” during the extraordinary 72 hours that finally saw Tsimanouskaya land at Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin Airport on Wednesday night.
Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, also fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife said she would not be returning home. Poland has also granted him a visa.
Tsimanouskaya said she was grateful to Poland for their help, but said she still hoped to return to a “free” Belarus one day. “I will be ready to return to Belarus once it is safe for me to do so,” she said. “I did not betray her, it is my homeland.”
Worldwide running event in support of Belarusian athletes
Latushko also told reporters that some 3,000 Belarusian athletes had added their names to a petition against the disputed outcome of last August’s elections in Belarus, which saw Alexander Lukashenko return to power for a sixth term.
Subsequently, massive protests broke out across the country, prompting a violent crackdown by the Belarusian security forces. Since then, some 35,000 dissidents, journalists and civilians have been arrested.
At least 100 Belarusian athletes are currently behind bars, Latushko said. The country’s Sports Minister Sergei Kovalchuk has experience in the armed forces and has worked in the security service since 2004.
The Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, an NGO founded last August, is carrying out a digital ‘marathon of freedom’ until August 16 to raise funds for financial, psychological and legal assistance to Belarusian athletes affected by the state’s response to the uprisings.
At the end of the press conference, Tsimanouskaya held up a T-shirt in support of the event, which bore the legend: “I just want to run.”
She explained: “I don’t want to run away from anyone or anything. The feeling of this is that I basically just want to race in the Olympics; I want to keep running. We are organizing this marathon of freedom, and that’s why I have this shirt with me ”.
Tsimanouskaya’s criticism on social media had been aimed directly at team officials, for scheduling her for an Olympic event in which she had never competed before. But it provoked a furious reaction in the Belarusian state media.
Lukashenko, who headed the Belarusian National Olympic Committee for nearly 25 years before handing over the job to his son in February, has a keen interest in sports, seeing it as a key element of national prestige.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism