Belarusian sprinter defected over safety fears

ave "Don't come back to Belarus, it's not safe for you here."ave

That was the warning Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya says her grandmother gave to her.

The Belarusian sprinter decided to defect from her country as she was being driven to Tokyo airport.

In an exclusive interview with Reuters in the Polish capital Warsaw on Thursday (August 5), Tsimanouskaya said she decided to heed that warning - and that of her parents.

"My parents, looking at all this concluded that upon my return home, I'd either face a psychiatric unit or prison. We know that such situations did happen in our country."

24-year-old Tsimanouskaya had criticized negligence by her team coaches.

She attracted international attention on Sunday, when she claims those coaches, angry at her criticism, had ordered her to fly home from Tokyo.

"I said I decided to run 200 meters. And he said ok and maybe wanted to make a call. And in a couple of hours, the head coach came to me with the team representative and they said there was a decision made to send me home, he said: 'We are not the ones who made the decision, but we are only executing it. You have 40 minutes. You have to pack your things and go to the airport.'"

Tsimanouskaya sought protection from Japanese airport police.

She subsequently spent two nights in the Polish embassy in Japan, before flying to Poland via Vienna.

Poland has granted Tsimanouskaya and her husband humanitarian visas.

Her case, reminiscent of Cold War sporting defections, could further isolate Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

He is currently under Western sanctions after a crackdown on opponents since last year.

Lukashenko's spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Tsimanouskaya's interview.

The Belarus National Olympic Committee didn't respond to additional comment requests either.

"I am not afraid. I am not one of those people who are scared. I always stand for the truth. I respect myself. I respect my work. And I also want other people to respect themselves, to respect their work and stop being afraid and start speaking openly on what worries them."

Despite her current circumstances, Tsimanouskaya still hopes to go home one day.

"I really hope that one day I can return to Belarus. I did not betray my homeland, I love it so much. I hope that one day I will return to my free Belarus."

Before going to Tokyo, Tsimanouskaya was not among the few Belarusian Olympians who publicly voiced support for the Belarus opposition.

Opposition figures have been prosecuted, jailed or fled since mass protests against Lukashenko began last year, even before he won a sixth presidential term, in an election that critics say was rigged - something he vehemently denies.

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