WARSAW, Poland – After all the turmoil of the past week, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya finally feels safe.
The Belarusian Olympic sprinter who took refuge in Poland to avoid punishment at home after criticizing team officials at the Tokyo Games said she now hopes to focus on how to pursue a running career in world class.
Speaking in an interview with the Associated Press at the Olympic Center in Warsaw on Wednesday, the 24-year-old said she had previously asked Polish authorities to help her resume training.
“Life changed in a day, and now we are starting it from scratch in a new country,” she said, speaking to her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, at her side. “We plan to stay in Poland and continue our career here.”
She added: “We turned to the Sports Ministry, to the Polish national athletics team, with issues regarding a coach, a group and a place where I can train and many other issues regarding the continuation of my sports career here in Poland. “
Tsimanouskaya said she and Zdanevich, 25, an athletics coach who has also been her coach, feel safe in Poland, where they arrived separately last week on humanitarian visas.
“We are definitely safe now because we are under protection,” she said.
The runner recalled the heartbreaking and confusing moments when she sought help from Japanese police at Narita International Airport in Tokyo as she was forced by Belarusian officials to leave the Summer Games earlier and go home.
“They didn’t understand what happened to me at first,” Tsimanouskaya said of the police. “They thought I was sick or lost something. And then I wrote that I was being forcibly taken out of the country and I don’t want that to happen.”
She eventually used her phone to translate a desperate plea for help after her grandmother warned her not to return to Belarus.
The drama began after Tsimanouskaya criticized her team officials, claiming on Instagram that she was placed in the 4x400m relay even though she had never run in the event. She was then banned from participating in the 200-meter race she expected to run and was told to pack her bags.
At home, the standoff sparked a massive backlash in state media, heightening Tsimanouskaya’s fears of retaliation if she returned.
When she used Google apps to translate her plea to the Japanese police, a suspicious Belarusian official asked what was going on. She told him that she had forgotten something in the Olympic Village and that she had to come back.
Tsimanouskaya described the sense of security she eventually felt after Japanese police removed her from team officials.
“I think I already felt safe at the airport when I was with the police,” she said. “I realized that I was turning to the police, they are protecting me and my life is not in danger. I was constantly escorted. I felt nervous and sometimes my hands were shaking, but I wouldn’t say that I didn’t. I didn’t feel safe. The only place that would be dangerous for me is Belarus. “
The standoff has drawn worldwide attention to the repressive environment in Belarus, where authorities unleashed a relentless crackdown on dissent after President Alexander Lukashenko was given a sixth term following the presidential vote of August 9, 2020 that the opposition and the West considered rigged. Protests rocked Belarus and authorities responded by arresting more than 35,000 people and beating thousands.
Asked about Tsimanouskaya at a press conference on Monday, Lukashenko said “she wouldn’t have done it herself if she hadn’t been manipulated”.
Tsimanouskaya has said she was apolitical ahead of the Tokyo Games stalemate and has deliberately refrained from signing petitions defying the authorities, fearing it could harm her husband and parents.
She said she had problems with sports officials after posting an anti-violence post on Instagram and was told she was at risk of being fired from the country’s national team if she did. again.
After the airport standoff, Zdanevich said they decided to move to Poland after talking to their parents.
“After consulting them, we decided that it was dangerous to go back to Belarus at the moment,” Zdanevich said. “And we decided that I would follow my wife to support her to a new country and build a sports career in Poland. You know, I was more worried about my wife than me. I thought they could use me for hurt her somehow. “
Tsimanouskaya and Zdanevich said they miss their parents very much, but talk to them on Zoom and hope they could visit Poland one day. They had to leave their dog and cat at their apartment in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, because Zdanevich had to flee quickly and asked neighbors and friends to take care of them.
The runner is also hoping to fix an issue with eBay that canceled all bids when she tried to auction off a silver medal she owns in 2019 to raise money to help Belarusian athletes being punished for their political views. .
“I was deprived of a chance to compete in the Olympics in my event, and [eBay] effectively denied me the opportunity to help athletes, ”Tsimanouskaya said, expressing hope that the company will correct their mistake and allow them to auction their medal.
And she hopes that Belarus will one day become a democracy.
“I hope that a time will come soon when Belarus can be free and people will have freedom of speech,” she said.