Belarus Sprinter Flies to Life in Exile as Her Recording of Threats From Olympic Coaches Emerges

·5 min read
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty

They pleaded with her. They cajoled her. They even gave her a history lesson. And when all that failed, they tried to force her home to face the wrath of a dictator.

A reported recording has emerged on the news outlet Meduza of an angry meeting at the Tokyo Olympic Village on Monday in which Belarus team chiefs tried to persuade sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to return home after she criticized her coaches on Instagram.

Just a few hours afterward, the sprinter fled into the arms of police at Tokyo’s Narita airport as Belarus officials tried to force her onto a flight to Minsk. On Wednesday, after two days holed up at the Polish embassy in Tokyo, she was back at Narita to take a flight to a life of exile in Europe.

The former Soviet republic of Belarus is considered Europe’s last dictatorship under its autocratic president of 27 years, Alexander Lukashenko, who clings to power using torture, rape, and murder as tools of political repression.

But although hundreds of athletes and coaches signed a letter attacking Lukashenko during nationwide protests over a rigged election last year—including several dozen later excluded from the Tokyo Games—Tsimanouskaya was not among them. All she ever wanted to do, she says, was to run the race she had trained for.

Belarus Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya Defects to Poland, Fearing for Her Life

The feud started when the 24-year-old runner, who thought she was entered only in the 200 meters in Tokyo, discovered she had also been put down for 4 x 100-meter relay—without anyone from the team consulting with her. Fearing disruption to her medal chances in her main event, she posted an angry video on Instagram criticizing the team’s coaches. The post was quickly taken down but had already been noticed in Minsk and the order came through for her to return home—immediately.

On Monday morning, the sprinter was woken by Belarus chief athletics coach Yuri Moisevich and another team official, Artur Shumak, who informed her of that decision. She refused, insisting that she should stay and run the race she had come for.

According to a partial recording of the conversation Tsimanouskaya said she made herself—a translation of which has been published by the investigative outlet Meduza—there follows an angry exchange in which the runner herself alternates between tears and angry defiance.

According to the transcript, the two men first try to reassure her that if she comes home without a fuss all will be fine, that it will be forgotten as a youthful indiscretion and she will be able to resume her athletic career. But that is clearly a lie—the Lukashenko regime doesn’t forgive and forget—as all three would have known. “I think this won’t end well for me,” says Tsimanouskaya.

Clearly terrified for their own futures if they fail to get her home, the team officials warn her that if she does not back down then everyone will suffer, the entire team could be ruined. “Through your stupidity, you could end up destroying people’s lives,” Shumak tells her.

Rebuffed again, they appeal to her to follow the tenets of the Orthodox faith and show Christian humility—or risk a far worse fate. “Humility makes a person,” Moisevich says on the reported recording. “Get over this. Put aside your pride. Your pride will tell you, ‘Don’t do it. You’ve got to be kidding’ and it will start pulling you into the devil’s vortex and twisting you. That’s how suicide cases end up, unfortunately.”

“The devil grabs them and says, ‘You have to prove it to somebody, so jump from a balcony. Oh, how they’ll tear out their hair and later lament that they drove you to it.’ And you know what’s the funniest thing? The people will say, ‘Well, that idiot could have lived. She didn’t prove anything to anyone,’” he continued, according to the Meduza translation of the reported recording.

Activist Whose NGO Helped Olympian’s Husband Escape Belarus Found Dead in Kyiv

With Tsimanouskaya digging in, Moisevich tries another tack: He invokes the example of the Russian general Kutuzov and his decision to abandon Moscow to the mercy of Napoleon’s forces after the battle of Borodino in 1812. The French burned the city down and looted everything they could take, only for Kutuzov to defeat them as they were returning to France.

“So when there’s a situation like this, it’s like in judo—you use your opponent’s own strength,” he adds, jumping back to a sporting analogy. “He rushes at you, you step back, and he’s knocked down by his own force.”

Reached by The New York Times before her departure from Tokyo, Tsimanouskaya said that she had been disturbed by last year’s protests in Belarus, but had always done her best to keep out of politics. “I just wanted to prepare for the Olympics,” she said. “I did not sign anything, so that no one bothers me.”

On Wednesday, dressed casually in blue jeans and a blue blouse, Tsimanouskaya arrived at Narita airport for a flight to Poland, which has offered her and her husband—who fled Belarus during the uproar—refuge.

At the last minute, however, she switched to a flight to Vienna. There was speculation the athlete was trying to avoid Belarusian secret service agents after the effective hijacking in May of a Ryanair flight carrying a dissident Belarusian journalist. She will also have been unnerved by the news that a Ukraine-based dissident whose organization helped her husband flee Belarus had been found hanged in a Kyiv park.

Belarus Government Diverts Ryanair Flight from Greece to Arrest Journalist Roman Protasevich

A Polish official told Reuters there were also concerns for Tsimanouskaya’s privacy given that a number of journalists had booked themselves on the same flight to Warsaw, but said she still intended to travel on from Austria to Poland.

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741

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