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Belarus sprinter faces long exile in Poland after seeking refuge

Belarus sprinter faces long exile in Poland after seeking refuge

Just two years ago, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was greeted by smiling Belarusian athletics and academic officials as she brandished a gold medal from the 2019 Summer Universiade, the young star’s greatest victory for her native Belarus yet.

Now that same bureaucracy is threatening to tear her life apart, as her coach and a delegation official warned a crying Tsimanouskaya on leaked audio that she was “caught in a spider’s web” and suggested that cases of “excessive pride” often lead to suicide.

The 24-year-old sprinter’s dramatic decision to refuse to return to Minsk from the Tokyo Olympics shows how the political protests and crackdown in Belarus have touched countless lives, including that of a promising young sprinter who strove not to entangle herself in politics and stick to the sport.

Born in the town of Klimavichy in eastern Belarus, Tsimanouskaya’s early sprinting experience was largely constrained to district competitions and “racing the boys around the courtyard, and I usually won”, she said in a 2015 interview. When an Olympic trainer offered her a spot at an academy at the late age of 15, her parents worried about her future, wondering whether her Olympics dream was worth the risk. She convinced them with her grandmother’s help.

Tsimanouskaya had become a rising star for her strong showings in the 100m and 200m sprints, capped by her gold medal performance at the Universiade in 2019 and a silver medal at the European Games in Minsk that same year. In Tokyo this week, she posed alongside a scoreboard with the Olympic sprinting icon and wrote that her first games “would be etched in my memory” and that she was “in the moment”.

Described as “hard-working” and “passionate”, Tsimanouskaya probably felt let down by coaching staff when she was unwittingly entered in the 4x400m relay, a race she had never trained for, a former teammate said.

“She is 100% professional, 100% passionate about her sport,” said the athlete, who asked not to be identified because she is currently in Belarus. “I can imagine the anger she must have felt [at being entered in the 4x400m relay] and that she needed to let her emotions out, but she could never have imagined [this]. This is a tragedy.”

As her conflict with Belarusian coaches snowballed into an all-out war this week, her parents warned her not to return home as Belarusian state television channels and even some national teammates turned against her. Several other athletes who have competed alongside Tsimanouskaya declined to speak for this article, saying the topic was too controversial to discuss openly.

“Something awful is happening here,” her parents told her, according to Dmitry Navosha, a member of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, an advocacy group. “We’re asking you not to come back to Belarus.”

Since protests began last August over Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election, athletes have been urged to speak out against the regime or to sign letters in support of the government. Tsimanouskaya and her husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, who fled Belarus for Ukraine on Sunday, had pointedly avoided the political battles of the past year. “We’re just normal sportspeople, we’re just devoted to sports and we’re not interested in the opposition movement,” Zdanevich told Sky News from Kyiv.

Navosha noted that Tsimanouskaya had neither signed a public letter calling Alexander Lukashenko a “paranoid dictator,” nor had she signed a letter in his support, a refusal that would have taken “great will.”

She now faces a long exile. Polish officials have said she can continue her athletics career in Warsaw, where she is likely to be reunited with her husband. Her parents and grandmother remain in Klimavichy, where they have reportedly been visited by the police. She and those close to her will remain a target for the Belarusian state. “I made the decision to leave without thinking twice,” Zdanevich, her husband, said.

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