Belarusian team officials tried to send Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya back to Belarus. But after receiving threats from authorities, the athlete is seeking refuge in the European Union instead. The tense situation highlights the oppressive environment in the athlete’s home country.
Belarus is an ex-Soviet nation. Authorities there have unleashed a relentless crackdown on dissent. The problems began with intense protests after President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term last year. Many global leaders saw the election as rigged. (See Belarusian Leader above Law?)
Like journalists and others in the country, Belarusian athletes have faced paybacks—including beatings, arrests, raids, and kidnappings—after speaking out against the authorities. The actions of Belarusian authorities smack of those of the scoundrel in Isaiah 32:7: “His devices are evil; he plans wicked schemes to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right.”
Sprinter Tsimanouskaya criticized the management of her team on social media. She says Belarusian officials made it clear this week that she would “definitely face some form of punishment” when she arrived home.
Poland quickly granted Tsimanouskaya a humanitarian visa to protect her from possible persecution. The athlete boarded a plane yesterday at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. The plane left the gate for Vienna, Austria, though it was not clear whether that would be her final destination.
President Lukashenko has a keen interest in sports. He served as the head of the Belarus National Olympic Committee for almost 25 years before handing over the post to his older son in February. Lukashenko has sternly warned Belarus Olympic athletes that they had better perform well at the Games.
“If you go there like tourists and bring nothing back, you better not return to the country,” Lukashenko has said.
The International Olympic Committee has investigated complaints from athletes. Many say they faced reprisals and intimidation during the crackdown on protests in the country. As a result, the leader and his son have both been banned from the Tokyo Olympics.
According to Valery Karbalevich, an independent Belarusian political analyst, “Lukashenko sees sports as a showcase of his regime, he wants to make it shine, and he considers any failures and losses as a blow to his personal reputation and authority.”
Belarus basketball star Yelena Leuchanka, an ex-WNBA player, spent 15 days in jail in October after protesting peacefully against authorities. She later told reporters that prison conditions were awful—with no hot water or toilet in her cell and inmates forced to sleep on metal beds without mattresses.
Maria Shakuro, the captain of the Belarus national rugby team, also served 10 days in jail for participating in a peaceful protest.
The legendary Olympic hammer thrower, Vadim Devyatovsky, lost his job in September as the head of the country’s athletics federation after a Facebook post critical of Lukashenko.
Officials also fired Natalya Petrakova, one of the most famous Belarusian handball players, as the senior coach of the women’s handball national team after she signed a letter of protest.
The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation says a total of 124 athletes have served jail terms, faced dismissals, or other repressive action.
“The horrible situation in the country is also reflected in sports,” says activist Vadim Krivosheyev. “All the power of the repressive machine has been directed at athletes who dared to express their civic position. Sports in Belarus is facing quick degradation as only those athletes who are loyal [to the authorities] are allowed to perform.”
(Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus runs in the women’s 100-meter sprint at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan. AP/Martin Meissner)