Belarus Sprinter Becomes an Unlikely Dissident


She sparked the biggest political crisis of the Tokyo Olympics, but Kristina Timanovskaya didn’t set out to be a symbol of the repression in her native Belarus. She just wanted to run.

Ms. Timanovskaya, a 24-year-old sprinter whose specialty is the 200 meters, became the center of an international scandal after her delegation forcibly tried to send her home from the Games. She had complained in an Instagram video that her coaches registered her for an event she hadn’t trained for, the 4×400-meter relay, because they had failed to conduct enough antidoping tests on other athletes.

“I will not say that politics came into my life, because in general there was no politics,” she said in a phone interview, declining to give her location for security reasons.

“I simply expressed my dissatisfaction with the coaching staff, who decided to put me in the relay race without telling me about it, without asking me if I’m ready to run,” she said. She said she worried that a poor performance in an unfamiliar event could cause her injury or trauma.

Ms. Timanovskaya had no idea then how quickly the situation would escalate, turning a sporting dispute into a major diplomatic incident that would make her an international cause célèbre and push her toward a life in a new country. Poland has offered to provide her with a safe haven away from Belarus and everything she knows.

After her Instagram video, which she later took down, the head coach of the Belarusian national team, Yuri Moisevich, and the deputy director of the Belarusian Republican Track and Field Training Center, Artur Shumak, came to Ms. Timanovskaya’s room at the Olympic Village to persuade her to recant and go home. The order, they said, came from above their pay grade.

“Put aside your pride,” Mr. Moisevich can be heard saying on a partial recording she made of the conversation. “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.

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“That’s how suicide cases end up, unfortunately,” he concluded.

Ms. Timanovskaya can be heard crying on the tape. At other times she sounded defiant, refusing to believe that if she acquiesced and returned home, she would be able to continue her athletic career.

Ms. Timanovskaya is an unlikely dissident. Born in eastern Belarus, she said she was partially deaf as a child and underwent several operations until her hearing was restored at age 12.

That was when she was allowed to begin physical education classes. Soon, her teachers realized she had a talent for running and jumping. At 15, relatively late for an elite athlete, she was sent to a special training school for Olympic hopefuls. By 18, she was representing Belarus at competitions in Britain, Italy, Poland, Qatar and Sweden.

When protests erupted last fall after the longtime Belarusian strongman Aleksandr G. Lukashenko claimed victory in widely disputed elections, Ms. Timanovskaya did not demonstrate with the hundreds of thousands of others. She mostly continued her grueling preparations for Tokyo, training from 9 a.m. until 2 or 3 p.m. with her husband, a former runner.

“Yes, there were protests,” she said. “I saw what was happening on TV, and I was very worried. It was very difficult for me, and I even had to take a break for two weeks because I was distracted from all this. I didn’t train because it was very hard.”

As the government cracked down on the protests, about 1,000 athletes signed an open letter calling for new elections and an end to the torture and arrest of peaceful demonstrators. As a result, 35 athletes and trainers were ejected from the national team.

Ms. Timanovskaya was not one of them.

“I just wanted to prepare for the Olympics,” she said. “I did not sign anything, so that no one bothers me.”

When she arrived in Tokyo for her first Olympics, she saw to her shock that she had been registered for the 4×400-meter relay in addition to her event, the 200-meter sprint. She frantically tried to reach her coaches and the delegation, but when no one answered her calls, she fumed about it on Instagram.

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“I spoke a little emotionally,” she said, of the Instagram video that she later took down. “But it was so emotional because initially their attitude toward me was not respectful. And they pressured and pressured me from the very beginning.”

As news of the video broke in Belarus and officials sought her apology and later her return home, she began to fear the consequences of what had happened.

“Already, the moment I was being taken to the airport, in my country on TV they showed news about me where they already said that I was not healthy that I needed to be removed from participation in the Olympics,” she said. “My parents called me and told me not to come home, because it would be unsafe, considering they already started talking on TV that I was mentally ill. It was obvious that upon arrival at the airport I would not get home, but they would immediately take me somewhere.”

On Sunday, when the officials came to tell her to pack her things, she said she knew she had to take a drastic step and seek asylum. Speaking on Tuesday, she said she never expected her rant against her coaching staff would become an international incident.

“I simply do not have an answer to this,” she said. “Absolutely nothing was said about politics on my part, I just expressed my disagreement with the decision of the coaching staff.”

She declined to speak about Mr. Lukashenko, or his son Viktor, chairman of Belarus’ National Olympic Committee. She did not make any political statements, possibly to avoid jeopardizing the safety of her parents, who remain in Belarus. Her husband, fellow sprinter Arseniy Zdanevich, fled to Ukraine as her case began dominating headlines.

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However, she did hope her story would serve as an example to her fellow athletes.

“I would really like the athletes to stop being afraid,” she said. ‘‘It should not be allowed to disrespect them because they are doing a very hard job. They train a lot. The bosses must respect us as athletes, and for that, athletes must stop being afraid and start talking openly about what is happening.”

Ms. Timanovskaya expressed dismay that the urgent application she put in to run the 200-meter sprint on Monday was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which had setup a temporary office in Tokyo to hear appeals related to the Games.

“I was ready to go on the track even after everything that happened,” she said.

Athletes rarely succeed with appeals against Olympic federations at the arbitration court, which is partly funded by the International Olympic Committee.

Miguel Maduro, a former advocate general at the European Court of Justice, criticized the decision. Mr. Maduro, also a former governance head at FIFA, the organization that runs global soccer, said the court’s refusal to grant Ms. Timanovskaya relief was “incoherent.”

He compared the ruling unfavorably with the treatment given to Russian athletes who are competing in Tokyo under the umbrella of the Russian Olympic Committee after Russia itself was banned as part of its punishment for a state-sponsored doping program.

“This sets up a perverse system of incentives protecting athletes of rogue states but only insofar as they continue to adhere to those states,” said Mr. Maduro.

Ms Timanovskaya, who has never known a president in her country besides Mr. Lukashenko, said she has avoided politics at all costs, despite the way that politics intruded on what was to be the biggest moment in her professional career to date.

“For me, the main thing is sports,” she said. “Politics for me is not a primary thing.”

Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting from Budapest. Tariq Panja contributed reporting from Tokyo.