AP Interview: Belarus sprinter feels safe, looks to future

Sports
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, Arseni Zdanevich

Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, left, and her husband Arseni Zdanevich speak to The Associated Press in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday Aug. 11, 2021. The runner, who has found refuge to rebuild her life in Poland, described the feeling of safety when police took her away from her national team officials.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — After all the turmoil of the last week, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya finally feels safe.

The Belarusian Olympic sprinter who found refuge in Poland to avoid punishment at home after criticizing team officials at the Tokyo Games says she now hopes to focus on how to keep up a world-class running career.

Speaking in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press at the Olympic Center in Warsaw, the 24-year-old runner said she has already asked Polish officials to help her resume training.

“Life changed in one day, and now we are starting it from scratch in a new country,” she said, speaking with her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, by her side. “We are planning to stay in Poland and continue our careers here.”

“We have turned to the Ministry of Sports, turned to the Polish athletics national team, with issues regarding a coach, a group and a place where I can train and many other issues regarding the continuation of my sports career here in Poland,” she said.

She emphasized that she and her 25-year-old husband, an athletics trainer who also has been her coach, feel that it would be a waste to abandon an online training program they launched in Belarus.

“We had so many ideas, we planned it to a tiny detail,” Tsimanouskaya said. “We have put a lot of time and effort in it and we would like to keep it going.”

Tsimanouskaya said she and her husband feel secure in Poland, where they arrived separately last week on humanitarian visas.

“We are definitely safe now because we are under protection,” she said.

The runner recalled the harrowing, confusing moments when she sought Japanese police help at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, when she was being forced by Belarus officials to leave the Summer Games early and return home.

“They didn’t understand first what happened to me,” the runner said of the police. “They thought that I was unwell or lost something. And then I wrote that I was being forcibly taken out of the country and I don’t want that to happen.”

She used her phone to translate the desperate plea for help after her grandmother warned her not to return to Belarus.

The drama began after Tsimanouskaya criticized her team officials, saying on Instagram that she was put in the 4×400 relay even though she had never run in the event. She was then barred from competing in the 200-meter race that she expected to run in and told to pack her bags.

At home, the standoff set off a massive backlash in state-run media, deepening Tsimanouskaya’s fears that she would face reprisals if she returned.

When she used Google apps to translate her plea to Japanese police, a suspicious Belarusian official asked what was going on. She told him she forgot something at the Olympic village and needed to return.

Tsimanouskaya described the feeling of safety she finally had after Japanese police took her away from team officials.

“I think I already felt secure at the airport when I was with the police,” she said. “I realized that I turned to the police, they are protecting me and my life isn’t in danger. I was being constantly escorted, I felt nervous and sometimes my hands were trembling, but I wouldn’t say that I felt unsafe. The only place which would be unsafe for me is Belarus.”

The standoff again drew global attention to the repressive environment in Belarus, where authorities have unleashed a relentless crackdown on dissent following President Alexander Lukashenko’s being handed a sixth term after the Aug. 9, 2020 presidential vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged.

Huge protests rocked Belarus, and authorities responded by arresting more than 35,000 people and beating thousands. They have ramped up the clampdown in recent months, raiding hundreds of offices and homes of independent journalists, activists and all those deemed unloyal.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, has denounced his opponents as Western stooges. Asked about Tsimanouskaya at a marathon news conference Monday, he claimed that “she wouldn’t have done it herself if she hadn’t been manipulated.”

Tsimanouskaya said she had been apolitical before the standoff at the Tokyo Games and deliberately refrained from signing petitions challenging the authorities, fearing that would bring harm to her husband and her parents.

She said she had problems with sports officials after posting a message against violence on Instagram and was told she would face dismissal from the country’s national team if she did it again.

After the airport standoff, her husband said they decided to move to Poland after talking to their parents.

“After consulting with them, we decided that it’s dangerous to return to Belarus at the moment,” he said. “And we decided that I will follow my wife to support her in a new country and build a sports career in Poland. You know, I was more worried for my wife than myself. I believed that they could use me to hurt her somehow.”

Tsimanouskaya and Zdanevich said they badly miss their parents but talk to them on Zoom and hope they could visit Poland someday. They had to leave their dog and cat at their apartment in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, since Zdanevich had to flee quickly, so they asked neighbors and friends to take care of them.

The runner also hopes to sort out a problem with eBay that annulled all bids when she tried to auction a silver medal she has from 2019 to raise money to help Belarusian athletes punished for their political views.

“I was deprived of a chance to take part in the Olympic Games in my event and (eBay) effectively denied me an opportunity to help athletes,” Tsimanouskaya said, voicing hope that the company will correct its mistake and allow her to auction her medal.

And she hopes that Belarus will one day become a democracy.

“I hope that a time will come soon when Belarus could be free and people will have freedom of speech,” she said.

___

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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