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Belarus Olympic sprinter says she fled after family's warning made her fear return home

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya left the Tokyo Games and flew to Poland, where she told reporters that her grandmother "told me I must not come back to Belarus."

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said Thursday that she decided to flee to Poland from Tokyo after she received warnings from her family that it was not safe to return home.

Speaking at a news conference in Warsaw, Tsimanouskaya, 24, said her grandmother warned her that she should not return to Belarus "because on TV, they say a lot of bad words about you, that you have some mental problems."

"She told me I must not come back to Belarus," she said.

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Tsimanouskaya said her parents had also warned her that Belarusians were being urged to "write hateful things about me" on social media.

Tsimanouskaya flew to Poland on Wednesday after she refused to return to Belarus from the Tokyo Olympics following a fallout with her coaches that led her to become the latest target for the country's sports-loving strongman.

Tsimanouskaya said her coaches ordered her to return home after she publicly criticized them for trying to force her to compete in an event she had never run in before.

She told reporters Thursday that her coaches had come to her room and urged her to pretend to have an injury and return home.

She has said she was taken to Haneda Airport against her wishes Sunday but managed to escape team officials and seek the protection of Japanese police. She said she used Google Translate to show officials a translated plea for help on her phone as she tried to avoid being put on a plane back home.

Tsimanouskaya received an outpouring of support from around the world. Poland granted her a humanitarian visa Monday.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus runs in the women's 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday.Martin Meissner / AP

Tsimanouskaya said she decided to go to Poland in hope of being able to continue her sports career. She also said she chose to seek refuge there because she knew her parents and her husband would not have trouble visiting the country.

She said her husband was already on his way to Warsaw to be with her.

Speaking to The Associated Press in a video call this week, Tsimanouskaya had said she feared that she would face punishment if she returned to Belarus. Team officials had "made it clear that upon return home, I would definitely face some form of punishment," she said.

Asked how that was made clear, 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.'"

Tsimanouskaya escaped to Poland as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continues to face international criticism over his brutal crackdown on political opponents and critics.

Lukashenko sparked widespread outrage in May when his government diverted a plane to the capital, Minsk, leading to the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich, an outspoken critic of his regime.

During Thursday's news conference, Tsimanouskaya said she wanted to "extend help to any person" in a similar situation. She said she hoped that Belarusians facing pressure from their authoritarian government will be able to speak out and said she would be willing to "act on their behalf."

She said she would consider returning to Belarus only if she felt convinced that it would be safe to do so.

Until then, she said, "I'm happy to be here, happy to be in safety."

The Associated Press contributed.