A virtual unknown to most of the world a few days ago, Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya is now at the center of an Olympic drama that has spilled over into the realm of geopolitics.
On Sunday afternoon, Kristina Timanovskaya, a 24-year-old sprinter, was taken to the Haneda Airport in Tokyo by two attendants from the Belarusian team. It would be the beginning of the most politically charged episode of the 2021 Summer Games, which has the potential to carry over into high-stakes diplomacy long after the closing ceremony.
Timanovskaya says she was taken to the airport against her will, and refused to get on the plane: "I am worried about my safety. And I think that, at the moment, it is unsafe for me in Belarus," German Die Welt reported her stating at the time.
According to the Belarusian Olympic Committee, led by President Alexander Lukashenko's 45-year old son, Viktor, the sprinter had been examined by a doctor and would not compete due to her "emotional-psychological" condition, a conclusion that Timanovskaya called a "lie."
Last week, Timanovskaya had spoken out on her Instagram account (now deactivated), saying that she would have to compete in a different Tokyo Olympics discipline, without her consent, after some members of the team were deemed ineligible for the Olympics because they had not undergone a sufficient number of doping tests, reports the Minsk-based correspondent of Le Monde. Instead of 200 meters, her specialty, she suddenly had to do the 4x400 meter relay.
Many think this public complaint is the real reason why she was supposed to be sent home, as Belarusian national television commented on the affair and condemned it as "unpatriotic behavior," the French daily reported. Meanwhile, Belarusian-language daily Zviazda quoted Siarhei Novikau, a Belarus silver medalist at the 2010 Olympic Games, saying that Timanovskaya was at fault.
As the case made worldwide headlines, the sprinter took refuge at the Polish embassy in Tokyo where she was granted a humanitarian visa, according to Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz who made the announcement on Twitter. Shortly after, international aid started to roll in. German athlete representatives organized lawyers in Japan, and France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune spoke out in favor of political asylum in the European Union. The European Commission also condemned the events and declared its solidarity with Timanovskaya. According to Commission spokeswoman Nabila Massrali, the attempt to forcibly bring Timanovskaya to her home country, "is another example of the brutality with which Lukashenko's regime oppresses the people of Belarus. The repressive measures affect the entire Belarusian society, including athletes, and do not even stop at the Olympic Truce," Die Welt reported.
The increasing international condemnation of Belarus' actions raises questions about its future in the Olympics, as well as its growing status as a virtual pariah state. According toDie Welt, it is likely that sanctions (already in place for the Belarusian team) will be tightened, and that Belarus could be thrown out of the IOC. If that were the case, its athletes would then have to compete under a neutral flag. Poland-Belarus relations could worsen too. Poland, along with Lithuania, is considered the main supporter of the opposition in Belarus and has granted some 120,000 visas to Belarusians who have fled the country. Not only does Poland provide housing, work, and even medical care to Belarusian opposition members, it also hosts the regime-critical Belarusian television network Belsat.
As for Timanovskaya's future, she told The Associated Press that she hopes to continue her career — but for now, safety is her priority.