Belarus runner showed Japanese police plea for help on phone
WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who criticized her coaches at the Tokyo Games said Thursday that she showed police at the airport a translated plea for help on her phone as she tried to avoid being put on a plane back home.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya left the Games and arrived in Poland on Wednesday, days after she accused team officials of trying to force her to fly back to Belarus, where an authoritarian government has relentlessly pursued its critics.
She told reporters Thursday that the officials told her to say she was injured and had to go home early, but she refused.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story follows below.
WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who feared reprisals at home after criticizing her coaches at the Tokyo Games said Thursday that her grandmother advised her not to return to Belarus but she urged her fellow citizens "not to be afraid."
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya left the Games and arrived in Poland on Wednesday, days after she accused team officials of trying to force her to fly back to Belarus, where an authoritarian government has relentlessly pursued its critics. She told reporters Thursday that the officials told her to say she was injured and had to go home early, but she refused.
Meanwhile, back home, her criticism on social media of how her team was being managed set off a massive backlash in state-run media. Her grandmother told her by phone there were reports on television that she was mentally ill and said it was best for her to not return.
At a news conference in Warsaw on Thursday, Tsimanouskaya thanked people who supported her during the dramatic standoff.
"It was the whole world, and these people make me much stronger," she said.
She also had a message for her fellow Belarusians.
"I want to tell all Belarusians not to be afraid and if they're under pressure, speak out," the runner said.
Poland has granted Tsimanouskaya a humanitarian visa, and the 24-year-old said she hoped to figure out soon how she might continue her career. She said she will speak with Polish officials on Friday about her next steps. She added that she hoped the Tokyo Games would not be her last Olympics -- and that she wants to return home one day, when it is safe.
Many of Belarus' activists have fled to Poland to avoid a brutal crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko's government.
In rapid-fire series of events that brought international drama to the Tokyo Games, Tsimanouskaya said Belarus team officials hustled her to the airport and tried to send her home early after she criticized how her team was being managed. She refused to board the plane, and European countries that are critical of Lukashenko's rule offered assistance.
On Wednesday, Tsimanouskaya flew from Tokyo via Vienna, a circuitous route that Polish officials indicated was for security reasons.
The standoff has drawn more attention to Belarus' uncompromising authoritarian government. When the country was rocked by months of protests following an election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term but that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown. Some 35,000 people were arrested and thousands of demonstrators beaten. The government has also targeted independent media and opposition figures.
In a sign of the lengths authorities are willing to go to silence their critics, Belarus officials diverted a passenger jet to the capital of Minsk in May and arrested a dissident journalist who was on board.
While Tsimanouskaya's criticism was aimed at team officials -- she complained that she was scheduled to participate in an event she had never competed in -- her defiance may have not sit well with political authorities. Lukashenko, who led the Belarus National Olympic Committee for almost a quarter-century before handing over the job to his son in February, has a keen interest in sports, seeing it as a key element of national prestige.
Tsimanouskaya's husband, Arseni Zdanevich, fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife said she would not be returning. Poland has also granted him a visa, and he is expected to join her.
Follow AP's coverage of Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/belarus