Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya says her country will be ‘free‘ one day.
The 24-year-old was given a humanitarian visa by Poland following her dramatic exit from the Olympic Games in Tokyo earlier this week, having arrived safely on Wednesday.
Tsimanouskaya had been due to compete in the women’s 200m on Monday, but after criticising the way her team was being managed on social media, officials told her to pack her bags.
Tsimanouskaya told reporters she had spoken briefly to her grandmother en route to the airport, only to hear of the massive backlash against her on Belarusian state media.
At the airport, fearing reprisal she showed Japanese police a translated plea for help on her mobile phone.
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.”
Its reported that 3,000 Belarusian athletes had added their names to a petition against last August’s disputed election result in Belarus, which saw the hugely despised Alexander Lukashenko back into office for a sixth term.
Mass protests erupted in the aftermath, prompting a violent crackdown by security forces. 35,000 dissidents, journalists and ordinary civilians have since been arrested, while at least 100 Belarusian athletes are currently behind bars.
At the end of the press conference in Poland, 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 criticised team officials, for scheduling her for an Olympic event she had never competed in before! Naturally she was stupified by such a decision and let her feelings be known on social media, which enraged the authoritarian regime.
Lukashenko, who led the Belarus National Olympic Committee for nearly 25 years before handing over the job to his son in February, views sport as a fundamental element of national prestige.