Belarusian sprinter arrives in Poland after fleeing Tokyo Olympics

The smile that says: ‘I escaped Lukashenko’ – Belarusian sprinter beams as she arrives in Poland after escaping kidnap by her own trainers because she dared to criticise them

  • Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, has arrived in Poland after fleeing Tokyo Olympics 
  • She flew to Warsaw via Austria in an apparent attempt to stop Lukashenko’s regime from diverting the flight, as he did with a Ryanair plane earlier this year
  • Poland’s foreign minister said she will now be taken to a ‘secure’ location to start her new life, without giving any further details 
  • Tsimanouskaya fled Tokyo after her own trainers tried to kidnap her because she criticised them online, warning her that ‘punishment’ awaited back home
  • Find out the latest Tokyo Olympic news including schedule, medal table and results right here

The Belarusian sprinter who was almost kidnapped from the Tokyo Olympics by her own trainers has arrived in Poland where she hopes to start a new life out of reach of dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. 

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, landed in Warsaw at 8.11pm local time Wednesday, having flown from Tokyo via a last-minute detour to Austria – an attempt to stop Lukashenko diverting her flight, as he did with a Ryanair plane earlier this year.   

Tsimanouskaya fled her home country when the regime targeted her for criticising Olympic coaches when they entered her into a race she had not trained for. 

She said trainers then tried to bundle her on to a flight back home after receiving an order ‘from above’ – warning that an unspecified ‘punishment’ awaited her.

But she escaped by handing herself over to police at Tokyo airport before Poland – already home to a number of Belarusian dissidents who have fled a crackdown by Lukashenko – agreed to grant her asylum. 

Beaming on arrival in Warsaw, Tsimanouskaya was greeted by Polish officials and Pavel Latushko – Belarus’s former minister of culture who has also fled into asylum after falling foul of the regime.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, has arrived in Poland after fleeing a kidnap attempt by her own trainers at the Tokyo Olympics

The sprinter flew to Warsaw via Austria in an apparent attempt to stop Lukashenko’s regime from diverting the flight to capture her

Tsimanouskaya will now be taken to a ‘secure’ location to start her new life, Poland’s foreign minister said without elaborating

Lukashenko targets athletes after they participate in protests against him

Sport is never far from politics in the ex-Soviet country ruled by Lukashenko, the long-serving authoritarian leader who sparked mass protests last year for claiming to have won a sixth presidential term.

Belarusian security forces unleashed a crackdown against the protests, detaining thousands of demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile.

Shortly before the Tokyo Games, Lukashenko warned sports officials and athletes that he expected results in Tokyo.

‘Think about it before going,’ he said. ‘If you come back with nothing, it’s better for you not to come back at all.’

Tsimanouskaya was one of more than 2000 Belarusian sports figures who signed an open letter last year calling for new elections and for all political prisoners to be freed following the mass protests.

Some athletes were also briefly detained in the protests, including a kickboxing champion and an Olympic medalist.

In August last year, Tsimanouskaya had called for an end to repression.

‘I am against any kind of repression, I am for peace, for honesty, for freedom of speech,’ she said in a post on Instagram underneath a photo of her holding the Belarusian flag.

Aside from that post, Tsimanouskaya’s Instagram is dominated by posts about her training sessions and nutrition.

Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya accused the Lukashenko regime of trying to ‘kidnap’ Tsimanouskaya.

‘Tsimanouskaya is proof that any Belarusian athlete sent to the Olympics can become a hostage if he finds the courage to speak,’ she said on messaging app Telegram.

Belarusian state television scorned the runner, with one presenter calling her ‘a person that has nothing to do with the Olympic movement’.

The country’s sports and political officials have suggested that the incident was pre-planned and could have been orchestrated from outside.

‘It is possible that (outside influence) was working with the girl,’ said political commentator Alexander Shpakovsky in the official newspaper of Belarus’s presidential administration, Sovetskaya Belorussiya, suggesting the country’s neighbours were involved.

Born in 1996 in eastern Belarus, Tsimanouskaya competed in the 200m at the world championships in Doha in 2019, but was knocked out in the heats after finishing fourth in her race in a time of 23.22 seconds.

‘We hope that the agony of the regime will soon end, and Kristina will be able to return to conquering new sports peaks in the New Belarus,’ he tweeted after the meeting, along with a picture of him and Tsimanouskaya together.

Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s foreign minister, also tweeted: ‘[She] 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.’

Speaking to journalists, he later added: ‘She needs to rest. She is tired but happy to be in Poland. She will stay in Poland in a safe place.’

Passengers on board the Lot airline flight said the plane had been diverted to a special area typically used for Polish diplomats.

One woman remained on board while everyone else was loaded into buses and taken back to the main terminal.

Tsimanouskaya was then walked off the aircraft and into a nearby building where she was met by Polish officials, with a heavy police guard present.

She exchanged a few words with those who greeted her, but did not make any public statement after her arrival. 

Tsimanouskaya had arrived Vienna Airport on Wednesday at 3.08pm local time on an Austrian Airlines flight from Tokyo.

The athlete was pictured speaking to Austria’s deputy environment minister Magnus Brunner while wearing a pink face mask, a blue jumper and jeans after she landed in the country.

Austrian foreign ministry spokesman told reporters at Vienna’s Schwechat airport that she had been accompanied on the first flight by Polish officials.

A VIP van followed by two police vehicles were waiting to escort Tsimanouskaya from the plane.  

‘She is safe and is doing well under the circumstances,’ Brunner told reporters after speaking with Tsimanouskaya.

‘She is tired but we had a good conversation. She says she is worried about what happens next.’ 

The athlete had been expected to fly directly from Tokyo to Warsaw but, amid concerns that Belarusian officials may still make efforts to snatch her, she changed plans at the last minute and took a flight heading to the Austrian capital of Vienna instead.   

‘According to our information, she is scheduled to head to Warsaw this evening,’ an Austrian foreign ministry spokesman said, adding that should she ‘want to make an asylum application in Austria, she can of course count on our support’. 

The late switch to the Vienna flight came after her supporters expressed concerns about her safety even in the air – after Belarus forced a flight from Athens to Lithuania which skirted its borders to divert to Minsk in May using a bogus bomb threat.

On board was journalist Roman Protasevich, a fierce critic of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was hauled off when it landed and thrown into jail.

The International Olympic Committee said on Tuesday it had launched a formal probe into Tsimanouskaya’s case and was expecting a report from Belarus.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of intolerable ‘transnational repression’ in the matter.

The sprinter caused a furore on Sunday when she said coaches had demanded she pack her bags at the Olympic village and taken her to the airport against her wishes, ordering her home because she had criticised them. 

‘I will not return to Belarus,’ she said at the time.

Tsimanouskaya said it was ‘made clear’ she would be ‘punished’ on her return to Belarus – before she escaped by handing herself over to Japanese police.

A Belarusian sprinter arrived at a Tokyo airport on Wednesday after leaving the Polish embassy, where she had taken refuge in a diplomatic twist at the Tokyo Olympics

Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, wearing a pink face mask, a blue jumper and jeans, was seen speaking to Austria’s deputy environment minister Magnus Brunner after she landed in Vienna

Viktor Lukashenko: Dictator’s son who crushed protests and now leads Olympic committee

The eldest son of Belarus dictator Alexander, 45-year-old Viktor Lukashenko is made in his father’s image – both in terms of looks and personality.

Raised to lead the country, he attended the Belarusian State University where he studied international relations before serving in the country’s border guards as part of his mandatory military service – the same section of the military his father served in.

He went on to work in the foreign ministry and for Agat, a military technology company, before becoming national security adviser to his father in 2005.

During protests that followed the 2010 election in Belarus, which Lukashenko is widely thought to have rigged, Viktor was involved in repressing dissent.

He was subsequently sanctioned by the EU, which accused him of playing ‘a key role in the repressive measures implemented against the democratic opposition and civil society… In particular in the crackdown of the demonstration on 19 December.’

On that occasion, riot police had brutally beaten thousands of protesters and arrested hundreds as they tried to storm the presidential palace in frustration at the election result.

Vladimir Neklyaev, an opposition leader, was beaten unconscious in a separate incident before being carried away to jail wrapped in a carpet.

Viktor was elected as head of Belarus’s Olympic Committee – replacing his father – in February this year, prompting sanctions from the global body.

The International Olympic Committee said in March that it refused to recognise the election and would ban both Alexander and Viktor Lukashenko from attending the Tokyo Games for ‘failing to protect athletes from political discrimination’ following anti-regime protests in which many sportsmen took part.

Dmitry Baskov, who was elected board member of the Belarus committee, was also sanctioned. He is suspected of ordering or participating in the beating of artist Raman Bandarenka, who later died in hospital. 

She said she expected to be kicked off the national team and coaches made ‘thinly disguised hints that more would await me’.

She also called for sanctions against athletics head coach Yuri Moisevich and for a probe into ‘who actually took the decision that I can’t compete’.

A leaked audio team has emerged of Moisevich subjecting Tsimanouskaya to a foul-mouthed tirade after the athlete refused his demand to be a late addition in the 400-metre relay when other runners were found to be ineligible due to ‘negligence’ by Belarus sports officials.

In a secretly recorded meeting, her refusal to obey the order run in the relay – for which she had no experience – after only being told about the plan at the last minute appeared to infuriate Moisevich. 

He exploded on the audio released by a Belarus opposition Telegram outlet and said: ‘Did this hit your psyche? What kind of secret was it, damn? A secret to f***ing deceive you?

‘We f***ing asked you, as a human, damn, we wanted you to run without any bad thoughts. Everything was done as a f***ing favour …’

They wanted to draft her in to ‘save this relay for the country’, he said. ‘Is this so hard to understand?’

She hit back saying she should have been told sooner – not at the last minute – about the plan to make her run following the blunder over the registration of relay runners.

The female sprinter told him on the recording: ‘Don’t you understand it is ridiculous. To put in the relay race people who do not run 400 metres… What nonsense.’ 

Tsimanouskaya spoke out even as the body of activist Vitaly Shishov, an opponent of dictator Alexander Lukashenko who helped his countrymen flee Belarus, was found hanged in a park in Kiev with friends claiming he was killed by regime thugs.

Shishov’s body was found in a park close to his house on Tuesday, a day after he had gone missing while out for a jog.

Police opened a murder probe and will be investigating the possibility he was killed and his death made to look like a suicide, as friends said there were signs he had been beaten before his death – including a broken nose.

Shishov had reported being followed by ‘strangers’ on his runs shortly before he vanished, friends added, while Ukrainian security forces had warned them Belarus KGB agents were sneaking into the country disguised as refugees.

The timing of Shishov’s death underlines the risks to Tsimanouskaya and her family, with husband Arseni Zhdanevich fleeing Belarus to the Ukrainian capital.

It is not clear whether he made contact with Shishov during his escape.

Olympic officials have also contacted Tsimanouskaya’s mother, who is still in Belarus, to tell her that her daughter has been recruited by foreign spies and must be brought home.

It is thought her father and grandmother also live in the country, though it is unclear if they have also been approached.

Tsimanouskaya added she hopes to continue her sporting career once she arrives in Poland, having hoped to compete at two more Olympics, but for the time being her safety is her priority.

Asked what made her fear she would be in danger at home, Tsimanouskaya said the key phrase was that ‘we didn’t make the decision for you to go home, it was decided by other people, and we were merely ordered to make it happen’.

She added she was worried about her parents, who remain in Belarus. Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, left the country and is in Ukraine.

Speaking to German media,   Tsimanouskaya said she never expected the scandal to become as big as it has – insisting that she is not involved in politics and did not intend her criticism of team coaches to be political.

Before his death, Shishov ran Belarusian House – an organisation that helped his fellow countrymen escape Lukashenko’s increasingly brutal regime.

The group provided advice on accommodation, jobs and legal issues, according to its website.  

She hit out even as the body of Vitaly Shishov, an activist opposed to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, was found in Ukraine a day after he went missing

Police in Kiev said Shishov’s body was found hanged in woods near his home, but that they have opened a murder probe on suspicion that the ‘suicide’ was staged by his killers

Vyasna human rights organisation said that ‘unknown people had been watching him during his jogging.

‘Suspicious people also approached him and his girlfriend, trying to talk’.

Friend and colleague Yury Shuchko added that Shishov ‘knew he was being hunted’ after Ukrainian security forces warned them that Belarusian special agents were sneaking into the country posing as refugees.

‘I suspect it was done by the KGB or a special service that works for Lukashenko’s regime’, he said.

‘We talked last week – he had a premonition…

‘I hope this coward and truly meaningless murder will be thoroughly investigated.

‘We will continue our work, we will continue protecting the Belarusians in Ukraine as we did before.’

Separately, a spokesman for Belarusian House said there is ‘no doubt’ Shishov died in an ‘operation’ carried out by the Belarus secret police.

Agents acted to ‘eliminate a Belarus man who was truly dangerous for the regime,’ the spokesman said, adding: ‘Vitali was under surveillance.

‘The facts were notified to the police.

‘We were also repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation.

‘Vitaly treated these warnings stoically and with humour.’

Tsimanouskaya sought police help at Haneda airport in Tokyo on Sunday, claiming she was being kidnapped before officers to her to a ‘secure’ location where she remained overnight

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, is pictured entering the Polish embassy in Tokyo where she was holed up after Belarus Olympic officials tried to kidnap her

Ms Tsimanouskaya was born and raised in Belarus, but will now fly to Poland on August 4 to try and start a new life after criticism of her Olympic coaches led to her being threatened. Meanwhile husband Arseni Zhdanevich has fled to Ukraine, saying he hopes to join his wife in Warsaw ‘in the near future’

Police have launched an appeal for information from friends on ‘possible threats’ against him, and well as details on his psychological state. 

Shishov’s girlfriend Bozhena Zholud, an architecture graduate and opposition campaigner, has strongly denied he would have taken his own life. 

Shishov’s friends have appealed to the Ukrainian authorities over her safety as they now believe she is in danger and needs police protection.  

Zholud told Radio Liberty: ‘We both had been sick for a week, and were lying in bed, watching movies. Of course, the mood of the sick man was not good, but Vitaly had no bad thoughts.

‘For sure, he could not have committed suicide. He had no reason to do so. And so he could not have done this to me. We had joint plans for the future.’

She said he had not told her that he was being watched – but he had confided to a friend of a premonition that he could be killed.

‘There was no such thing as him complaining that he was being snooped on,’ she said. ‘But lately, Vitaly had become more attentive. He watched what cars came up, who got out.

‘There were no threats to Vitaly, but he had a bad feeling. He did not tell me about this, but he wrote to one of our acquaintances a week before the tragedy: ‘I have a bad feeling, if anything happens, take care of Bozhena’.’

She said that she had been watched in the street – prompting concern for her, and an appeal by the couple’s friends to the Ukrainian Interior Minister Denis Monastirsky.

‘There were no cases when strangers approached Vitaly,’ she said. ‘But when I was alone on the street in the city centre, some strangers approached me… They recorded and filmed me.’ 

Lukashenko’s enemies have been found dead by hanging in suspicious circumstances previously.

In 2010, Oleg Byabenin, a Belarusian journalist and founder of Charter’97 human rights group, was found hanged at a country house.

His colleagues disputed the official finding of suicide. Last year activist Nikita Krivtsov, 28, was found hanged in a Minsk park.

Tsimanouskaya became a target of the regime when she uploaded a post to Instagram last week criticising her trainers for entering her into the 4x400m relay without her knowledge and without her training for the event.

She was due to compete in the 200m sprint on Monday, but was barred from taking part in the event.

Tsimanouskaya appealed that decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport but was turned down.

She was next seen at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Sunday where she handed herself over to police, claiming she was being taken out of the country against her will and that she feared for her safety if she returned home. 

The International Olympic Committee has since launched an investigation into the claims. 

 Lukashenko, known as Europe’s last dictator, has cracked down on dissent since claiming victory in elections last year that are widely considered to have been rigged – jailing critics who have reported being beaten and electrocuted by police behind bars. At least 10 people have died as a result, opposition activist say.

Europe’s last dictator: Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994 

Born in 1954 in the village of Kopys, in what was then the USSR, Alexander Lukashenko was the son of an unknown father – thought by some to by a Roma gypsy – and a labourer mother, Ekaterina Lukashenko.

He studied in Belarus and graduated from the Mogilyov Teaching Institute in 1975, then went on to study at the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in the 1980s.

He did a brief stint in the Belarusian border guards and also served in the Soviet Army, becoming involved in politics as a teacher within the military and as the leader of a Leninist organisation in the city of Mogilev.

After leaving the military he joined the ranks of the Communist Party and was appointed leader of a state farm, before being elected to the Supreme Council of Belarus in 1990.

Lukashenko made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner and emerged as a strong political ally of Moscow – the only deputy to oppose the December 1991 agreement that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In 1994 he appealed to Russia to form a new union of Slavic states, shortly before his election as President of Belarus – promising stronger ties between the two nations.

Two years later, he persuaded voters to approve a new constitution allowing him to extend his term in office, rule by decree, and to appoint a majority of parliament.

Lukashenko used those powers to extend his term in 1999, and won an election in 2001 and another in 2006 – amid allegations of vote-rigging that resulted EU leaders banning him from their countries.

Election victories – accompanied by more allegations of fixing – followed again in 2010 and 2015.

Lukashenko’s popularity declined rapidly between 2015 and 2020, spurred on by his increasingly erratic behaviour coupled with mismanagement of the Covid crisis – during which he claimed vodka and saunas could prevent the disease.

Amid a wave of dissent, another election was held in 2020 which returned an official victory for Lukashenko with 80 per cent of the vote – though few believe this to be accurate.

His main opponent – Sergei Tikhanovsky – was arrested in the run-up to the ballot, leaving wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to run in his stead. She subsequently fled the country to Lithuania after being targeted by police.

Anger at the result sparked the largest wave of protests in Belarus since its Soviet days, with mass demonstrations, strikes and calls for a change of leadership.

Lukashenko responded by sending riot police on to the streets to round up dissenters, with an estimated 25,000 arrested by November. Ten have so-far died amid the crackdown.

Lukashenko has also cracked down on journalists, raiding the offices of the country’s largest newspaper along with the home of its editor on charges of ‘tax evasion’.

In May he staged his most-daring move yet, diverting a Ryanair jet carrying dissident reporter Roman Protasevich to Lithuania before arresting him.

Mr Protasevich’s allies, including Ms Tsikhanouskaya, say they now fear for his life.

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