A sprinter from Belarus who refused her team’s orders to fly home early from the Olympics has revealed she decided to flee after her grandmother warned her it was not safe to return.
Krystina Timanovskaya told the BBC she was being driven to the airport when her grandmother called, saying: “Do not come back.” The athlete had been ordered to return home after criticising her coaches. She is now in Poland, where she has been given a humanitarian visa.
Belarus says she was removed from the national team because of her emotional state. But the 24-year-old says this is not true. The case has again put the spotlight on Belarus, which has been ruled by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Last year, nationwide protests over his disputed re-election were violently repressed by the security forces.
Ms Timanovskaya’s removal came after the sprinter complained on social media about being entered into the 4x400m relay race at short notice, after some teammates were found to be ineligible to compete. The video led to criticism in state media, with one television channel saying she lacked team spirit. Ms Timanovskaya said two coaches came into her room and told her to pack her bags immediately, ready to return home. She was told to say that she had been injured. The sprinter revealed her grandmother said she was concerned that something bad might happen, after watching local news reports on the situation.
“I couldn’t believe [that my grandmother would tell me not to come home] but I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ And she said, ‘Yes. I’m sure. Do not come back,'” she recalled. “That was the reason why I went to the police.” At the airport, Ms Timanovskaya showed officers a translated plea for help on her phone in an effort to avoid being put on a plane home. She was then given police protection before being moved to the Polish embassy in Tokyo. She travelled to Poland on Wednesday.
The mass protests that gripped Belarus last year saw security forces often use violence to break up the demonstrations and thousands of people arrested. Some of the protesters were national-level athletes, who were then stripped of funding, cut from national teams and detained. But Ms Timanovskaya insists that she is “not a political girl” and just wants to focus on her sporting career.
“I don’t know anything about politics. I never was in politics,” she said. The sprinter told the BBC she wanted to return to Belarus, but that it was too dangerous at the moment. Her husband has also fled Belarus and has been given a visa for Poland, but her relatives remain in the country. She said her parents were “OK, just a little bit nervous”, and trying to avoid watching TV reports about their daughter.
“They know me and they know the truth and they know what’s happened,” she said. She added that the support she had received from people around the world had made her stronger.
In separate cases, two Belarusian opposition figures have gone on trial this week, charged with incitement to undermine national security. On Tuesday, Vitaly Shishov, the head of an organisation helping Belarusians fleeing abroad, was found dead near his home in neighbouring Ukraine.
He had reportedly been followed recently. Asked about her hopes for Belarus, Ms Timanovskaya said: “I want people in my country not to be afraid anymore”. (BBC)