Krystsina Timanouskaya is a Belarusian sprinter who fell out with her coaches in Tokyo. She got so worried about the fall-out that she’s applied for political asylum.
Claudia, narrating: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world.
Today, the Olympian who’s leaving her country behind.
Translation from Belarusian: “I’m asking the International Olympic Committee for help. I’m being put under pressure to leave the country without my consent. I’m asking the IOC to intervene in this.”Krystsina Tsimanouskaya
In the early hours of a Tokyo morning, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a sprinter from Belarus, made a video.
It’s just her, with her mask on, speaking to the camera. She’s talking quickly, but calmly. Behind her mask, though she looks tired – and maybe a little scared.
She said: “I’m asking the International Olympic Committee for help.” She said she was being put under pressure to leave Tokyo – against her consent.
That video was taken at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. It looked as if Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was about to be forced to get on a flight back to Minsk.
Well, the sprinter had been meant to compete in the 200 meters. But then her coaches told her they wanted to enter her into another race – one she hadn’t trained for.
She made an Instagram video criticizing her coaches. And as a result, she was thrown off the Belarusian team. Soon after, she made her plea to the IOC – she was scared of what might happen if she went back to Belarus.
Belarus is ruled by a repressive, authoritarian regime.
“With an economy in tatters and a long list of human rights violations to his name, Alexander Lukashenko presides over Europe’s closest equivalent to North Korea. Time warped Belarus, a former Republic of the Soviet Union, provides a glimpse into what life was like before the collapse of the USSR.”Al Jazeera
The president, strongman Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994. And even before that, the country was part of the Soviet Union.
Right now, things are rocky in Belarus. It’s close to a year since the country had an election – a fraudulent one. Alexander Lukashenko won his sixth term as president.
[Clip of Belarusian protesters chanting]
Thousands of people came out to protest the result, calling for him to resign. And thousands of people were arrested.
The crackdown was brutal. Opposition leaders were forced into exile. Pro-democracy organisations were shut down. Journalists have been imprisoned.
Remember earlier this year, when Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight to divert to Minsk? That was all to arrest a journalist and political activist.
A year after those protests, Alexander Lukashenko hasn’t gone anywhere. And like any other dictator he’s got a powerful propaganda machine behind him.
Sports is one of the things Belarus boasts about. It’s a big point of national pride. And Alexander Lukashenko takes the country’s sporting success really seriously. According to one Belarusian journalist, he had a stern message for the athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics:
“He… even before the Olympic games started, he warned the sports leadership, the national team that if they don’t win any medals, if there wouldn’t be any results, those people would rather not come back to Belarus. So he uses sports as a propaganda tool in the country.”DW news
So there’s a lot of pressure on the athletes to perform. The members of the Olympic team are representing their country on the international stage.
And their boss, the head of the Belarus National Olympic Committee, is Alexander Lukashenko’s oldest son. You can see how what Krystsina Tsimanouskaya did – criticising her coaches publicly, online – was a dangerous move.
And she’s so worried for her safety if she goes back to Belarus that she’s taken refuge in the Polish embassy in Tokyo. She plans to seek asylum in Poland.
There’s a threat to her family too. Back in Belarus, her husband has already fled the country and crossed the border into Ukraine.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya’s story is an incredible one: just like that she’s gone from Olympic hopeful to refugee.
So, how unusual is it for athletes to flee in the middle of the games?
“Now to the case of the missing Olympians, seven competitors from Cameroon have gone missing in London: five boxers, a swimmer, and a soccer goalie – six men, and one woman – it’s presumed they may seek asylum in England. And if so, they’ll join a long list of athletes who have defected during the Olympic games.”NPR
You might remember that back in 2012, at the London Olympics, dozens of athletes disappeared from the Olympic Village. As well as the seven from Cameroon there were four from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, three from Sudan, one from Ethiopia and another from Eritrea.
We know that lots of them tried to seek asylum in Britain.
And there’s actually a long history of athletes using the Olympics – and other international competitions – as a chance to escape violence, political instability and repression in their home countries.
The first ever Olympic defection was at another London games, all the way back in 1948. The Czecheslovakian women’s gymnastics coach decided to seek asylum in the United States.
Over the years, hundreds of Olympians have escaped from dozens of dangerous regimes: from the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name just a few.
Now we’ve got Belarus on that list too. During any Olympics, the eyes of the world are on the athletes.
If they announce they’re defecting from their country – the one whose flag they stood behind during the opening ceremony, the one whose colours they wear on their uniform – that really means something.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has said that this isn’t a political protest – and she would return to Belarus if she knew it would be safe.
But by leaving Belarus behind, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has brought the attention of the whole world to the trouble going on back home.
Today’s episode was written by Ella Hill and produced by Imy Harper.