The unlikely activist: What happened when this Olympic sprinter refused to go home
What took place at the Tokyo Olympic Games was never supposed to be political, Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya tells SBS News. But as she adjusts to life in a new country, she says she'll continue to speak out.
It’s taken a few weeks, but Belarusian athlete-turn-dissident Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is now settling into her new life in Warsaw, Poland.
She finally feels “safe”, the 24-year-old tells SBS News in her only Australian interview.
Local authorities have helped her find a place to live and her husband has been granted a visa to be with her too - but she’s missing home.
“I left my work, my family, my friends; I lost all of it,” she says over Zoom.
“Now I’m in Poland, I feel like I have to start over and I'm worried about this … Maybe I won't make it, maybe I won't be able to start over.”
Tsimanouskaya’s journey to Poland wasn’t planned. Instead, it was the result of a split-second decision that snowballed into one of the biggest stories of the Olympics Games earlier this month.
“I didn't expect that I would never go back to Belarus after the Tokyo Olympic Games,” she says.
I didn't expect that I would never go back to Belarus.
But the story of Tsimanouskaya’s plight has sparked a renewed interest in her homeland's hardline government - and it’s made Tsimanouskaya an unlikely political activist.
An Instagram post
Tsimanouskaya had travelled with about 100 other Belarusian Olympic hopefuls to Tokyo in July. She was there to compete in the 200 metres, an event she’d fared well in at the European Championships.
But when she found out she’d been added to the 4x400 metres relay team at the last minute, without her consent, she took to Instagram to vent her frustration.
She complained about her coaches and her country’s Olympic committee.
For athletes from many other countries, a little social media rant would not amount to any sort of punishment, but for Tsimanouskaya, from Belarus, it was enough to brand her a dissident.
In a country labelled the 'last dictatorship of Europe', even an insignificant social media post can be seen as an insult to authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.
The next morning, on 1 August, she says she was taken to Tokyo’s Haneda airport against her will. She accuses the Belarusian Olympic Committee of attempting to forcibly repatriate her.
But while in the car on the way to the airport, where she was flanked by two Belarusian officials, she made an escape plan.
“I was worried about not finding a police officer, that maybe it would be too late,” she says.
“But luckily when I arrived [at the airport] I saw a police officer right away, so I went to him.”
I was worried about not finding a police officer, that maybe it would be too late.
“I wasn't worried anymore that I would have to go back to Belarus and go to prison,” she says of that moment.
Tsimanouskaya used a translation app on her phone to tell the Japanese authorities she needed help and was taken to a hotel under police protection where she issued an open plea for international help.
Within a few days, she was on a flight to Warsaw after being offered a humanitarian visa and support from the Polish government.
Kriscina Cimanouska has safely landed in Warsaw. I want to thank all Polish consular&diplomatic staff involved, who flawlessly planned and secured her safe journey. Poland 🇵🇱 continues to show its solidarity and support. https://t.co/9ScZUUyP8d
The Belarusian government has defended its decision to remove Tsimanouskaya from the Games, claiming that she had an “emotional breakdown”.
A political scandal
The events that unfolded in the airport that day were shared around the world, putting a spotlight back on Belarus and its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994 virtually unopposed, also ran the Olympic Committee up until last year. But after the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in the country late last year, the International Olympic Committee forced him to step down.
His son, Viktor Lukashenko, was his successor.
The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), an advocacy group that supports Belarusian athletes who have been punished by the regime, says the Lukashenkos' longtime control of the national Olympic committee - and nearly all sport in Belarus - allows them to intimidate and silence athletes.
The BSSF says if Tsimanouskaya had returned to Belarus she would have likely “been punished and imprisoned for criticising the team”.
After the incident, it didn’t take long for state media outlets in Belarus to brand Tsimanouskaya a 'traitor' and she became the target of a hate campaign. But Tsimanouskaya insists she never planned for it to become political.
“I still don’t understand how the whole situation that happened in Tokyo turned into politics,” she says.
I still don’t understand how the whole situation that happened in Tokyo turned into politics.
“How it became such a political scandal, because, initially, it was just a situation in our national team.”
But Tsimanouskaya isn't the first Belarusian athlete to pay a high price for speaking out.
A history of punishing athletes
Following a highly disputed presidential election in August 2020, thousands of athletes joined the mass anti-government protests that gripped Belarus.
Some 30,000 protesters were arrested, according to human rights groups, and thousands were allegedly beaten.
The executive director of BSSF and former Belarusian Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia says “dozens of athletes have been punished for standing up against the state”.
According to BSSF, over the past year, more than 100 athletes have been detained, while seven have been charged with political offences, and many more have been disallowed from representing Belarus at an international level.
One of those jailed was international basketball star Yelena Leuchanka.
The 38-year-old, who gave years of her professional life to the Belarusian basketball team, was arrested in September 2020 at the airport as she was on her way to Greece, with police saying she’d participated in ‘unorganised protests’.
She was jailed for 15 days and says accusations of torture at the hands of Belarusian authorities are true.
“I was there, and I witnessed it.”
“I slept on iron beams the whole time, we used whatever newspapers we had, or paper from books to help us sleep, or whatever clothes, but we didn't have many clothes, it's impossible.”
Leuchanka says for the entirety of her imprisonment she wasn’t allowed to shower and the heating was turned off in the cells.
“I think they were trying to make it hell for me.”
“I had fleas close to the end of my time; I got fleas in my clothes and in my hair. And the way they talk to you, the way they treat you, it's so humiliating.”
Within 10 days of being released, Leuchanka left the country and travelled to Greece where she was playing basketball. She has continued to speak out against the government in Belarus and has become a leader for the pro-democracy movement.
For that reason, her family and friends back home have told her it’s not safe for her to return.
“Never in my mind did I think in 2020, 2021, that I'd be sitting with you, or any other interviewer, and tell you that I cannot go home,” she says.
“It's devastating, it's frustrating, it's terrifying; being in another country and not knowing what your future is or how long you're going to be here.”
'I have become a symbol'
It’s a reality Tsimanouskaya is now facing too. She says she doesn’t know when she’ll ever be able to go back home, but she's coming to terms with that.
Last week, she announced she plans to represent Poland in upcoming competitions, pledging allegiance to the country that granted her asylum.
“This whole situation has made me stronger and now I have even more desire to train better, show better results and to prove to myself first that I am worthy,” she says.
“And that I can show good results even though I changed my country of residence and practically had to start my career from scratch.”
She’s working on getting visas for her family so they can also move to Poland, concerned they may become targets because of her name.
“We keep in contact every day. They are well, they're a bit worried about me of course, but right now they're safe. But they don't know for how long they could be safe,” she says.
While Tsimanouskaya maintains she is first and foremost an athlete, she knows now she can’t ignore the politics that have surrounded her defection.
“As many people have already told me, I have become such a symbol, and for many, it is very important what I say, my support is very important.”
“So for now, while I take a short break from sport, I’ll continue to support people through Instagram and other platforms.