Olympic Sprinter From Belarus Seeks Refuge in Japan, Fearing Jail at Home


A Belarusian sprinter said Sunday that she was under the protection of the Japanese police after her country’s Olympic Committee tried and failed to deport her forcibly after she criticized her coaches for registering her for the wrong event.

The sprinter, Kristina Timanovskaya, announced Sunday evening on Instagram that she had sought protection in Japan because she feared for her safety in Belarus, where the country’s strongman leader, Aleksander G. Lukashenko, in power for 27 years, has sought to stifle any dissent.

“I am afraid that in Belarus they might put me in jail,” Ms. Timanovskaya told the independent Belarusian news portal Zerkalo.io. “I am not afraid that I will be fired or kicked out of the national team, I am worried about my safety. And I think that at the moment it is not safe for me in Belarus.”

The Belarusian National Olympic Committee, which is run by Mr. Lukashenko’s eldest son, Victor Lukashenko, said on Sunday that it had withdrawn Ms. Timanovskaya from the Games because of her “emotional and psychological state” after consulting with a doctor.

Ms. Timanovskaya denied being examined by any doctors and said she was in good physical and psychological health. She said she had been forcibly removed from her country’s team because “I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches.”

In a video taken at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, she asked the International Olympic Committee for support. In a statement, the I.O.C. said it was researching the situation.

“The I.O.C. has seen the reports in the media,” the statement said, and “is looking into it.”

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Kazuya Isozaki, a spokesman for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police department, would neither confirm nor deny reports that Ms. Timanovskaya was in Japanese custody or had applied for asylum at Haneda Airport.

“We don’t even know whether the police will take care of this or not,” Mr. Isozaki said.

The Reuters news agency said that one of its photographers saw Ms. Timanovskaya with the police at the airport and that she had said, “I think I am safe.”

Ms. Timanovskaya, 24, was to participate in the Olympic Games for the first time this summer in the 200 meter sprint. But she said she was informed that she would be running the 4×400-meter relay race because some team members had not taken enough antidoping tests to qualify for the event.

“I’m outraged!” she told Zerkalo.io from the airport. “After all, we came to the Olympic Games, and it is against all the rules to declare us for a distance event which we have never competed in our life. This is a complete disrespect for athletes,” she said, describing the situation as “complete chaos.”

She told Zerkalo.io that on Sunday, her coaches and a representative of the national team had come to her room and told her to pack her things. She said she was told that if she did not return, she would lose her position on the national team, be deprived of work and face “possibly other consequences.” She said she was told that the decision was not made by the athletic federation or the Ministry of Sports, “but at a higher level.”

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“They said I need to be eliminated from the Olympics and returned home because I interfere with the team’s performance,” she told Zerkalo.io.

Belarus was convulsed by protests following last August’s disputed presidential elections. Since then, President Lukashenko has indicated he will not brook any dissent, jailing opposition politicians, critics, journalists and a number of athletes who signed a petition in October condemning his government’s use of violence, according to the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation.

Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat who is now with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Ms. Timanovskaya’s criticism was focused on bureaucratic negligence and was not political.

“The regime persecutes everyone that publicly criticizes it,” he said, adding that he believed the president personally made the decision to bring Ms. Timanovskaya home.

Mr. Lukashenko “likes sports so much and has been using sports victories for political reasons during all his rule,” Mr. Slunkin said. “So when he is criticized by sportsmen or sportswomen, he really doesn’t take it well.”

The forced removal of Ms. Timanovskaya from the Games is the latest in a string of international incidents that have led Belarus to become increasingly isolated internationally.

In May, the Belarusian authorities forced down a RyanAir plane flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, that was carrying Roman Protasevich, a blogger who worked for a website that helped direct anti-government protesters last year. After being detained, he was released to house arrest in late June.

Mr. Lukashenko has also been accused of punishing the European Union by flooding the 27-member bloc with migrants because the E.U. imposed sanctions following the disputed election and the diversion of the RyanAir flight.

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Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in last August’s elections before fleeing to neighboring Lithuania, called on the I.O.C. to take on Ms. Timanovskaya’s case.

“She has a right to international protection & to continue participation in the @Olympics,” she wrote on Twitter.

Valerie Hopkins reported from Vienna. Tariq Panja, Motoko Rich and Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo.


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