Belarus runner showed a call for help from the Japanese police on the phone

A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who criticized her coaches at the Tokyo Games said she showed a translated call for help on her phone to police at the airport when she tried not to be put on a plane home

WARSAW, Poland – A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who criticized her coaches at the Tokyo Games said on Thursday she showed police a translated call for help on her phone as she tried to avoid being put on a plane home where she feared reprisals from an authoritarian government.

After Tsimanouskaya posted a message on social media criticizing the way her team is being run, she said to pack her bags. Team officials told her she was injured and had to go home early.

On the way to the airport, she spoke briefly with her grandmother, who said there had been massive backlash in the media against her in Belarus, including reports that she was mentally ill. Her grandmother advised her not to return.

At the airport, she sought help from the police, translated a request into her cell phone and showed it to them.

In the course of the drama, European countries offered to help, and the runner ended up at the Polish embassy, ​​where she received a humanitarian visa. Many activists from Belarus have fled to Poland to avoid brutal crackdowns by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

At a press conference in Warsaw on Thursday, Tsimanouskaya thanked the people who supported her during the standoff.

“It was the whole world and these people make me a lot stronger,” she said.

She also had an embassy for her compatriots in Belarus.

“I would like to tell all Belarusians not to be afraid and to speak up when they are under pressure,” said the runner, who spoke in both English and Russian at the press conference.

However, she expressed concern for the safety of her family at home. Her husband, Arseni Zdanewich, fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife said she would not be returning. Poland also issued him a visa.

As a sign of the willingness of the authorities to silence their critics, Belarusian officials rerouted a passenger jet to the capital Minsk in May and arrested a journalist who was critical of the regime who was on board.

But Tsimaounskaya has insisted that she is not an activist and that she can only compete in her favorite event in the Olympics. The stalemate began after she complained that she should be competing in a race she had never competed in before.

The 24-year-old said Thursday she hadn’t thought of applying for political asylum but hoped to find out how to continue her career soon. She said she would speak to Polish officials about her next steps on Friday.

She added that she hoped the Tokyo Games wouldn’t be her last Olympics – and that she would like to return home one day when it’s safe.

While Tsimanouskaya’s criticism was directed at team officials, her opposition may not have been well received by the political authorities. Lukashenko, who headed the National Olympic Committee of Belarus for almost a quarter of a century before handing the job over to his son in February, has a keen interest in sport and sees it as a key element of national prestige.

“I just wanted to run in the Olympics, it was my dream,” said Tsimanouskaya on Thursday. “I really wanted to do this and I hope I can continue.”

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Follow AP coverage of Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/belarus

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Litvinova reported from Moscow.

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