Before Everyone’s Eyes: Tsimanouskaya’s Case at the Olympics

Myriam Marino

Acts of political repression carried out by the Belarusian government, which peaked after August 2020, once again transcended national borders and drew high international attention.

The XXXII edition of the Olympic Games was successfully held in Japan from 23 July to 8 August, postponed by one year, despite doubts related to a still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of logistics connected to the competition could have caused on the overall health situation in Tokyo and the country.

The extensive coverage by the media  and the sociocultural relevance of the Olympic games contributed to giving resonance to an episode that sparked international outcry. The event involved a sprinter of the Belarusian Olympic Team, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, the most recent target of a national policy of repression against dissidents.

Exactly one year after the massive anti-government social protests that flooded the capital Minsk and the whole country, spotlights are once again on the Belarusian rule and President Lukashenko. In the course of the past year, as a fact, the government has managed to attract the attention of the international community through a number of controversial actions and authoritarian tendencies. These include a dismantlement of freedom of expression,  practically inexistent rule of law and democratic standards in the country, connected to acts of repression such as torture, censorship, suspicious disappearances of individuals. Several representatives of the political opposition, intellectuals and human rights advocates were forced to flee the country, facing a concrete risk of being persecuted. Just last May, the dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested along with his girlfriend after the plane from Ryanair they embarked on was forced to land in Minsk.

Tsimanouskaya’s case, however, stands out from preceding cases, due to the unique scenario of the Olympics. According to her own statements, the 24-year-old sprinter was asked to take part in the 4x400m relay competition as a substitute to other runners with extremely short notice and without prior consent. A few Belarusian female sprinters had been found ineligible to compete due to an insufficient number of doping tests. This led the athlete to express her complaints on her social media account regarding the overall planning, timing and role of the national Olympic coaching team. These and further declarations by Tsimanouskaya sparked a strong reaction from the Belarusian government. Not many days later, on August 1st, the runner was forced to pack and was escorted by the Belarusian Olympic team to the Haneda airport of Tokyo, with the intention to board her on a flight back to Belarus. Tsimanouskaya, however, immediately sought the support and protection of the Japanese authorities present at the airport, refusing to take the flight. The athlete was eventually granted the support and protection of the International Olympic Committee as well, with which she maintained communication to monitor the case. On the other hand, the Belarusian Olympic Committee – the President of which is Alexander Lukashenko’s son – justified Tsimanouskaya’s withdrawal from the competition by referring to issues of psychological nature.

In the days that followed, Tsimanouskaya’s case became one of international concern, particularly in consideration of the fact that the athlete needed political asylum to avert the possible consequences of the case in her homeland. Support was shown by individuals who, in the past, had fled from Belarus and were welcomed in other European countries, including the leader of the Belarusian political opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Since last year’s protests against Lukashenko’s rule, several athletes have become targets of political prosecution due to opposing stances towards the Belarusian government. Accordingly, the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation has proved to be highly supportive of the athlete in the process of seeking asylum.

For Tsimanouskaya, the quickest response to asylum appeals came from Poland, offering her a humanitarian visa and assistance to continue her career in sports. However, sympathy came also from several other EU countries, including Slovenia and the Czech Republic, who declared themselves highly willing to help Tsimanouskaya.

While Lukashenko’s comment on the episode attributed the sprinter’s reaction to external “manipulation”, Tsimanouskaya accepted the humanitarian visa granted by Poland and flew to Warsaw, via Vienna, on August 4, avoiding the airspace over the Belarusian territory. Simultaneously, the International Olympic Committee established a Disciplinary Commission aimed at investigating the case and the role of the individuals involved.

Past events taught us how the Belarusian regime’s tools against dissidents include violence and strong repression. While Tsimaouskaya’s case was alarming, one could categorize it as a story with a positive ending in comparison to the fate of other individuals who have, in the past years, expressed views in contrast to the government.

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