Sprinter touches down in Vienna after refusing to return to Belarus

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya flew from Tokyo to Vienna under the diplomatic protection of Poland on Wednesday, less than 72 hours after her team cut short her Olympic Games and ordered her to return home.

The apparent Cold War-style defection of an Olympic athlete had become one of the major news stories of the Games, and could further isolate Belarus, which is under Western financial sanctions after a crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko against the opposition since last year.

After spending two nights in Poland’s embassy, the 24-year-old sprinter walked onto the plane at Narita airport wearing blue jeans, a blue blouse and sunglasses with “I RUN CLEAN” written on them.

Her Austrian Airlines flight later touched down in Vienna, where a black shuttle bus marked ‘VIP Terminal’ sped away from the airliner followed by a police escort. She was expected to travel onward to Poland, which said it had also granted a humanitarian visa to her husband.

The sprinter caused a diplomatic furore on Sunday when she said coaches had demanded she pack her bags at the Olympic village and took her to the airport against her wishes, ordering her home because she had criticised them. She refused to board the flight and sought the protection of Japanese police.

“I will not return to Belarus,” she told Reuters at the time.

The Belarus National Olympic Committee (NOC) did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Previously, the NOC said coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors’ advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

She was initially due to fly to Warsaw on Wednesday, but a Polish government source said she was switched at the last minute to the Vienna flight over concerns about privacy and security after news of the itinerary became public. Concern was high because of an incident in May, when a Ryanair flight was forced to land in Belarus and a dissident journalist arrested, the Polish source said.

Austria’s interior ministry said Tsimanouskaya could count on the country’s support on her arrival. The ministry expected she would travel on to Warsaw, but if she were to apply for asylum in Austria it would be handled according to legislation there, it added.

REUTERS