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Japan shelters Belarusian sprinter who sought to flee at the Olympics

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya made a dash for freedom at a Tokyo-area airport, claiming her team was forcing her to return home after she criticized her coaches.
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TOKYO — A Belarusian sprinter brought under the protection of Japanese authorities on Monday after making a dash for freedom at a Tokyo-area airport is reportedly heading to Poland.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who said her team was forcing her to return home after she publicly criticized her coaches at the Olympics, plans to seek asylum in Poland, an activist group supporting the athlete told The Associated Press.

Tsimanouskaya had sought the protection of Japanese police at Haneda Airport on Sunday after she refused to board a flight to Minsk, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese authorities confirmed.

“They are trying to get me out of the country without my permission,” Tsimanouskaya, 24, said in a videotape posted online by the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, or BSSF, a dissident athletic organization.

The IOC confirmed in a tweet Sunday that Tsimanouskaya “is with the authorities at Haneda airport.”

“She has told us she feels safe,” it said.

The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, an organization supporting athletes facing scrutiny or persecution over their political views, Tsimanouskaya, told AP that it had already bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for August 4.

The Polish government was the first to offer Tsimanouskaya a safe haven. Reuters reported later that the athlete was seen entering the Polish Embassy in Tokyo.

“She was offered a humanitarian visa and is free to pursue her sporting career in Poland if she so chooses,” Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Marcin Przydacz said earlier on Twitter.

The Czechs had also offered to take in Tsimanouskaya, and the BSSF had previously said she could seek asylum in Germany or Austria.

Tsimanouskaya’s escape, which was first reported by Reuters, came as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been widely criticized for his brutal crackdown on political opponents trying to remove him from an office he has held since 1994.

The president of Belarus’ Olympic committee is Lukashenko’s son Victor.

The National Olympic Committee of the Republic of Belarus and the Belarusian Consulate in Tokyo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the IOC to protect the sprinter and accused the Lukashenko regime of trying to “kidnap” her, likening the airport incident to the forced landing in May of a Ryanair jet in Minsk to arrest the dissident journalist Roman Protashevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Tsimanouskaya, who ran in the women’s 100-meter heats Friday, was supposed to run in the 200-meter heats Monday and the 4x400-meter relay Thursday. She said she got in trouble with her coaches after she complained on Instagram that she was being to made to run the relay after other members of the team were deemed ineligible to compete at the Olympics because they not undergone all the doping tests.

"Some of our girls did not fly here to compete in the 4x400-meter relay because they didn't have enough doping tests," Tsimanouskaya told Reuters at the airport. "And the coach added me to the relay without my knowledge. I spoke about this publicly. The head coach came over to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me."

The Belarusian contingent has been visible outside the Olympic village, mostly men traveling in pairs with their country's name emblazoned on the backs of their workout jackets or polo shirts. On Sunday, two Belarusian photographers were doing a photo shoot at the Tokyo Big Sight elevated train station with a young woman. It was not clear whether she was an athlete or a model.