“We are running free, and Belarus will be free.”
These words concluded the first press conference by Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya since her dramatic exit from the Tokyo Olympics earlier this week.
The 24-year-old was given a humanitarian visa by Poland following the furore last Sunday, and arrived safely in the country on Wednesday.
Tsimanouskaya had been due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint in Tokyo on Monday. But after she criticised the way her team was being managed on social media, officials came to her hotel room on Sunday and told her to pack her bags.
Speaking to reporters in Warsaw on Thursday, Tsimanouskaya said she had spoken briefly to her grandmother on the way to the airport and been told there was a massive backlash against her in Belarusian state media.
At the airport, fearing reprisal from the authoritarian state if she went home, she showed Japanese police at the airport a translated plea for help on her phone.
Dissidents contacted three EU member states for help
Pavel Latushko, a former Belarusian Minister of Culture-turned-key opposition figure who fled to Poland last summer, had a hand in arranging for Tsimanouskaya to stay at the Polish Embassy in Tokyo.
“Our goal was to make sure she received a visa and an opportunity to go to one of the EU member states,” he explained. "There wasn’t a word about politics. We contacted the foreign ministries of Germany, Austria and Poland 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 it would be helpful and desirable if she was in a safe place with security.”
Latushko expressed his thanks at the conference to “all those who cared” during the extraordinary 72 hours that finally saw Tsimanouskaya touch down 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 its help, but said she still hoped to go back 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 it; 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 last August’s disputed election result in Belarus, which saw Alexander Lukashenko back into office for a sixth term.
Mass protests erupted across the country in the aftermath, prompting a violent crackdown by Belarusian security forces. Some 35,000 dissidents, journalists and ordinary civilians have since been arrested.
At least 100 Belarusian athletes are currently behind bars, Latushko said. The country’s Minister of Sports, Sergei Kovalchuk, has a background in the armed forces and worked in the security service from 2004.
The Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, an NGO founded last August, is holding a digital ‘Freedom Marathon’ 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 aloft 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 anybody or anything. The sense of this is I basically just want to run at the Olympic Games; I want to continue running. We are staging this marathon of freedom, and that’s why I have this T-shirt with me.”
Tsimanouskaya’s social media criticism had been aimed squarely at team officials, for scheduling her for an Olympic event she had never competed in before. But it provoked a furious reaction in Belarusian state media.
Lukashenko, who led the Belarus 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.