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Belarusian Olympian says punishment awaited her back home as she heads to Poland

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board a flight back to Belarus, claiming her team was forcing her to return home after she criticized her coaches.

A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who refused to board a flight home after clashing with officials from her team at the Tokyo Olympics has said authorities "made it clear" she would face punishment if she returned to Belarus.

Speaking with The Associated Press, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said team officials had "made it clear that, upon return home, I would definitely face some form of punishment."

Asked how that was made clear, Tsimanouskaya, 24, said that “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.’”

The athlete had hoped to run in the women's 200 meter on Monday. However, her Olympic career took an unexpected turn after she publicly criticized her coaches for trying to force her to compete in a different event, with her comments sparking backlash from state-run media back home.

Tsimanouskaya said her team had tried to force her to return to Belarus on Sunday, with officials taking her to Haneda Airport against her wishes.

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The 24-year-old refused to board the flight, however, and instead sought the protection of Japanese police.

A number of countries have offered to help the athlete in the days since, with Poland granting Tsimanouskaya a humanitarian visa on Monday.

The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, or BSSF, a dissident athletic organization supporting Tsimanouskaya, told The Associated Press it had already purchased a ticket to Warsaw for the athlete, with her flight set to depart on Wednesday.

Speaking with AP, Tsimanouskaya said she hopes to be able to continue her athletic career once she has reached safety.

“I would very much like to continue my sporting career because I’m just 24, and I had plans for two more Olympics at least,” she said. But "for now, the only thing that concerns me is my safety.”

Image: Krystsina Tsimanouskaya
Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on August 3, 2021.Daniel Kozin / AP

Tsimanouskaya said she is also concerned about her parents' safety, with her family remaining in Belarus.

Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, left the country and is currently in Ukraine.

Tsimanouskaya had said on Instagram that her fallout with her coaches unfolded after she was put in the 4x400 relay at the Tokyo Olympics, despite having never competed in the event. She was then blocked from competing in the 200 meters.

The athlete launched a legal bid to run in the event, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport said it denied her request for an interim ruling that would have allowed her to run on Monday.

On Tuesday, Tsimanouskaya called for an investigation into the matter and suggested possible “sanctions against the head coach who approached me and who deprived me of the right to compete in the Olympic Games.”

She called on international sports authorities to "investigate the situation, who gave the order, who actually took the decision that I can’t compete any more.”

Tsimanouskaya's bid to escape potential persecution in Belarus comes as the country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, continues to face widespread criticism over his brutal crackdown on political dissidents.

The Belarusian leader sparked international outcry after his government saw a plane diverted to the capital of Minsk, with authorities arresting journalist Roman Protasevich, an outspoken critic of Lukashenko's regime.

Lukashenko's son, Viktor, currently heads the Belarus National Olympic Committee.

However, both were banned from the Tokyo Olympics by the International Olympic Committee following an investigation of complaints from athletes who said they faced intimidation during Lukashenko's crackdown on dissidence following a wave of anti-government protests over the last year.

For Tsimanouskaya’s part, the athlete said she does not "want to get involved in politics."

"For me, my career is important, only sports is important, and I’m only thinking about my future, about how I can continue my career," she said.