Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya received a humanitarian visa from Poland on Monday, hours after she refused to board a flight out of Japan saying she was being forced to return to her native country against her will and that she feared arrest.
Poland’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marcin Przydacz, announced on Twitter that Timanovskaya had been granted the visa. “Poland will do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career. [Poland] always stands for solidarity,” he posted.
Earlier Monday, Reuters reported that Timanovskaya had been seen entering the Polish embassy.
Late Sunday, the 24-year-old Olympic athlete was moved from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and “secured by police in a special shelter,” where she was said to be “safe for now,” according to Anatol Kotau, of the Belarus Sports Solidarity Foundation, which represents athletes repressed by Belarusian authorities.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said earlier on Monday that Timanovskaya had spent the night at an airport hotel and was in the hands of Japanese authorities.
IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in a daily press briefing the IOC has asked the Belarus National Olympic Committee for a full written report on the situation.
“We’re talking again to her this morning to understand what the next steps could be and what she wants to pursue, and we will give her support in that decision,” Adams said, adding that the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is involved in her case.
Timanovskaya was set to compete in the women’s 200 meters at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday but said representatives of the Belarus national team tried to forcibly send her back to her home country after she criticized national sporting authorities for entering her into the 4×400 meter relay without her consent.
Kotau, who is in direct contact with Timanovskaya, said team officials came to the Olympic Village on Sunday afternoon and asked her to “pack her belongings as a decision had been made for her to return to Minsk.” She was scheduled to leave on a 10:50 p.m. flight to Istanbul but upon arriving at the airport, Timanovskaya approached a Japanese police officer and asked to apply for political asylum, Kotau said.
“I am afraid that I might be jailed in Belarus,” Timanovskaya said in an interview with the Belarusian sports news site Tribuna on Sunday. “I am not afraid of being fired or kicked out of the national team. I’m concerned about my safety. And I think that at the moment it is not safe for me in Belarus. I didn’t do anything, but they deprived me of the right to participate in the 200 meter race and wanted to send me home.”
Throughout the Cold War, numerous athletes defected from the Soviet Union and communist eastern bloc countries during major overseas sporting competitions. Though such acts have become rarer since the fall of the Soviet Union, defections from other nations continue to occur.
Last month, 20-year-old Ugandan weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko went missing after leaving a note saying his life in Uganda was too difficult and he wanted to work in Japan. He was found and transferred to police custody. Multiple African Olympians reportedly went missing during the 2012 London Games — with Eritrea’s flag-carrying runner Weynay Ghebresilasie among those applying for asylum in the United Kingdom.
Unlike these athletes, however, Timanovskaya did not appear to set out with the intention of defecting for political reasons, and instead appears to have been forced into the act after speaking out against an official decision to include her in a race she has not run before.
Sports and politics in Belarus
Timanovskaya did not say exactly what she feared she would be jailed over, but Belarusian athletes have faced retaliation, been detained, and excluded from national teams for criticizing the government following mass protests last year against longstanding strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian leader has ruled the country for 27 years and was in charge of the country’s National Olympic Committee (NOC) for decades before his eldest son, Viktor, took over in February.
However, the IOC refused to recognize Lukashenko’s son, saying in a statement the Belarus NOC had “not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination.” In December, the IOC banned both Lukashenko and his son from attending the Tokyo Games.
On Sunday, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on the IOC and Japanese authorities to ensure Timanovskaya’s safety and to investigate the management of the Belarus NOC. She referenced the detention of a dissident journalist who was arrested after his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted and forced to land in Belarus in May.
“The regime’s hijack of the Ryanair plane was just the start of Lukashenka’s international terror. They kidnapped Pratasevich & Sapega, they tried to kidnap Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsymanouskaya. I call on authorities and IOC to ensure safety for all Belarusian athletes,” Tikhanovskaya said in a tweet.
The Belarus Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) was formed in August 2020 during anti-government protests against the disputed re-election of Lukashenko, who has held power of the eastern European nation since 1994. It provides legal and financial support to athletes who have been targeted for expressing their political views.
BSSF’s Kotau said Timanovskaya will decide on Monday where to apply for asylum. She has so far received declarations from Japan, Poland, and the Czech Republic, each offering visas.
Timanovskaya spoke out against Belarus sports officials
Timanovskaya told Belarusian sports outlet Tribuna that she had never competed in the 400 meters and was “outraged” by the decision to include her in the relay event.
“I would never in my life begin to react so harshly if they would come up to me in advance, explain the situation and find out if I can run 400 meters and I am ready? But they decided to do everything behind my back despite the fact that I tried to find out this information but was only ignored,” she wrote in an Instagram post on Friday.
While her comments don’t appear to be political, her apparent criticism of an official decision hit a nerve in a country where dissent is increasingly being punished, especially since elections last year.
After recording a video on Instagram venting her frustrations, she said that “(team officials) started calling me with threats and demanding to delete the video if I want to go ahead in sports. At first, I refused to delete it for a long time, but then I did it, so that they stop calling me.”
The Belarus NOC said Sunday that Timanovskaya was withdrawn from the Games due to her “emotional and psychological state,” a claim the athlete disputes.
“According to the doctors’ conclusion, due to the emotional and psychological state of the Belarusian track and field athlete Kristina Timanovskaya, the coaching staff of the national track and field team decided to stop the athlete’s performance at the Games of the XXXII Olympics,” the committee said in a statement on their Facebook page.
“Therefore, the athlete’s application for participation in the qualifying races for the 200 meter and in the 4×400 meter relay has been withdrawn,” it added.
Timanovskaya said a psychologist came to speak with her in a way she described as “nonsense.”
“No doctors came up to me. No one examined me,” she said. “I have a good psychological state, even despite the fact that such a situation was going on. I am holding up normally, I have no health problems, no traumas, no mental issues. I was ready to run.”
Timanovskaya said Yuri Moisevich, the head coach of the national athletics team, told her that “this issue is no longer at the level of the federation (of athletics), neither at the level of the Ministry of Sports, but at a higher level.”
“That I should be eliminated from the Olympics, returned home, because I am in the way of the team performing,” she said.
According to the BSSF, Timanovskaya’s husband has left Belarus and is in a “safe place.”
CNN has reached out to Timanovksaya, the Belarusian National Olympic Team and the Belarusian Embassy in Tokyo for more information, but has not received a response.
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