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Belarus sprinter who ran from Lukashenko tells Euronews about her new life exiled in Poland

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By Emil Filtenborg
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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While life for Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya would have been harder back home, her situation exiled in Poland is far from perfect.

The 24-year-old, who fled the Tokyo games after Belarus officials tried to force her onto a flight home, tells Euronews she now has bodyguards with her round-the-clock.

Tsimanouskaya, living with her husband in Poland after they were both given humanitarian visas, says they control her every move, all day.

“I can’t meet my friends, because the guards do not know them," Tsimanouskaya told Euronews. "We can do interviews if they are planned ahead, and I can go training or swimming.

"They say it can be organised, but I cannot go to shops or the park. Every time I want to go out, I have to get permission."

She is grateful for the extra security -- the price to pay for feeling safe -- especially after a harrowing experience in Japan and the death of another Belarus dissident, Vitali Shishov, in Kyiv, which his widow blamed on Minsk.

Nevertheless, she does miss parts of her old life, especially the freedom.

“I would like to go back to normal, to visit the city and enjoy the summer, but I understand that it is dangerous," she said. "I got messages from people saying if they saw me, they would disembowel me. I know that now it is best to be safe, I understand that it would not be smart to show up in front of many people.”

Tokyo torment

Tsimanouskaya hit the global headlines after claiming Belarus officials in Japan tried to force her onto a flight back to Belarus.

The drama, however, had begun over a row with her coach after she was told to run the 4x400m relay, a distance she was unfamiliar with.

“When I learned that I had to do relay I contacted the main coach to ask what happened," Tsimanouskaya said.

"They saw my messages but didn’t respond, so I put a video on Instagram. Then they said I would be fired if I didn’t remove the video.”

“I had a conversation with the coach who said that they had received an order from the top to remove me from the Olympic Games.

"I had to say I was injured and go back to my parents in Belarus without giving interviews. They implied, that I would go to prison there.”

Tsimanouskaya said officials gave her 40 minutes to pack her bags. She was then taken to the airport in a car for a flight back to Belarus.

Luckily, she said, Tsimanouskaya was able to get in touch with Japanese police, famously using Google's translation app to communicate her plight. A suspicious Belarusian official asked what was going on but she managed to stall by saying she'd forgotten something at the Olympic village and needed to go back. Finally, police took her away from Belarus team officials and she returned to Europe after Poland stepped in to help. She now lives in a house offered by the Polish state, Tsimanouskaya added.

Credit: AP
In this Friday, July 30, 2021 file photo, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, of Belarus, runs in the women's 100-meter run at the 2020 Summer Olympics, JapanCredit: AP

Threats and thanks

Tsimanouskaya is now a celebrity around the world, especially among the Belarus diaspora.

Every day she gets messages of encouragement and support from people like her who have fled the authorities in Minsk.

“Whenever I want to give up, I can just read a few of these messages and I feel better and stronger," she told Euronews.

"A lot of people tell me, that they support me and want to help me and I have learned that a lot of people are in my situation.”

Thousands of Belarusians have left the country after a crackdown on dissent over the last year. That came after huge protests last autumn following the disputed re-election of long-time Belarus president Alexandar Lukashenko. He was announced the winner of the August election with an 80% vote share. His critics say the poll was rigged in his favour.

Yet not all the messages Tsimanouskaya receives are positive. Around one-in-a-hundred contain threats or harassment.

“I try not to take it in. I try not to give it a lot of attention," said Tsimanouskaya. "When I go to the accounts of the people who threaten me, I see that they support the authorities. What can you expect from those people?”

Credit: AP
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya holds up an Olympic-related T-shirt with the slogan "I Just Want to Run" after her news conference in WarsawCredit: AP

What are Tsimanouskaya's future plans?

Getting back to any form of normality is going to be difficult for Tsimanouskaya, especially given the presence of bodyguards.

But she is determined to try. First, she wants to reignite her athletic career and get back out on the track.

“I want to continue my career," she said. "I would like my plans for the years to be fulfilled. I want freedom and safety for my country. For people to stop running away from Belarus. I want freedom of speech. And I want to come back to Belarus and train there. I think I will go back one day, but I have no idea when. It could happen in one year. In two years. In five years. No one knows, what is going to happen.”

While her plight has embroiled her in the politics of Belarus, she has no intention of changing her career path.

“I will always prioritise sport, I am not going into politics," she said. "I want to stay in sport. I don’t understand politics, and I don’t want to say anything, that could hurt my parents. I try to support other sportspeople who are going through the same situation, and I hope this will be motivation for them to speak up. Maybe if they speak up, the country could be free quicker."

It's not just sports stars. Tsimanouskaya is also urging everyone to have the courage to oppose the authorities in Belarus.

“I understand your [the people's] situation. I would like to tell them to find the strength and courage to speak up even though they are scared.

"You can go to prison for saying the wrong thing, but if we work together and support each other, we can win.”

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