On August 2, the Belarusian state news agency Belta published a story claiming the country’s Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya had been pulled from competition and would be sent home.
“As it has been reported, the coaching staff of the national athletics team decided to withdraw Krystsina Tsimanouskaya from the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in connection with her emotional and psychological state,” the story read, providing few details.
This is false.
Tsimanouskaya said Belarusian Olympic team staff tried to force her to board a flight back to Belarus after she criticized the decisions of Belarusian sports officials on Instagram. She had complained about being ordered to sub for a disqualified athlete in a relay – a race for which she hadn’t trained.
Rather than board the flight in Tokyo, Tsimanouskaya notified airport police that she was being forced to return against her will. She later fled to the Polish Embassy in Tokyo, where she was granted a humanitarian visa. Meanwhile, her husband fled Belarus for neighboring Ukraine.
The independent Russian news outlet Meduza reported that a Telegram channel leaked a recording of a phone call between Tsimanouskaya and two Belarusian sports officials – Yuri Moisevich, the national team’s head coach, and Artur Shumak, deputy director of Belarus’ track and field training center.
During the 19-minute conversation, the two men attempted to persuade Tsimanouskaya to leave Tokyo, and she was driven to tears. Shumak made it clear the reason for their actions was her criticism of team officials.
Since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed reelection in August 2020, which prompted sustained mass protests, the government has increasingly cracked down on journalists, activists, NGOs and other suspected opposition supporters. Among those targeted was the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, an organization which supports national athletes facing governmental pressure or harassment.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Lukashenko regime has used sporting events for propaganda purposes, such as hosting European Olympic Games in 2019. Lukashenko also long served as the head of the country’s Olympic Committee, before handing over control to his son Viktor earlier this year.