Belarusian sprinter who defected to be reunited with husband in Poland

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya says call from grandmother key in decision not to return home

Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya told a press conference in    Warsaw: ‘Right now I feel much better here, I feel that I’m safe and a lot of people support me here.’ Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya told a press conference in Warsaw: ‘Right now I feel much better here, I feel that I’m safe and a lot of people support me here.’ Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

 

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said on Thursday her husband is on his way to Poland as the couple look to make a new life for themselves there after the athlete’s dramatic defection during the Tokyo Olympics.

Tsimanouskaya (24) arrived in Warsaw on Wednesday evening after she refused her coaches’ instruction to return to her homeland from Japan and was offered a humanitarian visa by Polish authorities.

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, she said she had decided to defect as she was being taken to a Tokyo airport because her grandmother called her to tell her that it was not safe to return to Belarus. She said her family feared she would be sent to a psychiatric ward if she went back.

“Grandmother called me when they were already driving me to the airport,” she said. “Literally, I had some 10 seconds. She called me, all that she told me was: ‘Please do not come back to Belarus, it’s not safe’.”

“That’s it, she hung up,” she said. “I would want to return to Belarus. I love my country. I did not betray it and I hope I will be able to return.”

Later, Tsimanouskaya told a news conference in Warsaw:

“Right now I feel much better here, I feel that I’m safe and a lot of people support me here and my husband, he is already on the road by car to Poland.”

“I’ll wait for him today in the evening so he will be here, maybe, with me ... I am just waiting for him.”

Arseni Zhdanevich left home abruptly, travelling to Ukraine after his wife took refuge in the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday.

“I think he was also shocked. I did not know he was leaving Belarus. My grandma or mother told me. He called me when he was already on the way,” Tsimanouskaya said.

“He said that he and our parents decided that he must leave too. And he quickly packed some things and left.”

Belrusian president Alexander Lukashenko has led a harsh crackdown on opposition since disputed elections last year, with leading opposition figures either in jail or living abroad. Mr Lukashenko has dismissed opposition accusations that the elections were rigged in his favour.

Poland, which like Ukraine and Lithuania has become a haven for Belarusians since the crackdown began, has drawn parallels between the struggle against Mr Lukashenko’s authoritarian government and its own history during communism.

Tsimanouskaya, who said she had not been involved in politics in Belarus, had criticised negligence by her team coaches.

Subsequently, the Belarusian Olympic Committee had said coaches withdrew her from the Games on doctors’ advice about her emotional and psychological state.

A trainer and a massage therapist, Mr Zhdanevich runs a fitness business together with his wife.

“I hope that we can stay here and I will continue my sports career and my husband will be able to find a job here,” Tsimanouskaya told the news conference.

Poland has eased visa procedures for Belarusians.

According to Poland’s Office for Foreigners about 34,000 Belarusians have residence permits, a number which has increased rapidly in recent years.

The Polish foreign ministry and the Office for Foreigners said in June nearly 10,000 Belarusians had applied for humanitarian visas or asylum in the past year. – Reuters

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