The 24-year-old Krystsina Tsimanouskaja has been living in Poland for a few weeks now, gradually getting used to her new life.
But it was not this turn she had thought life would take. In the name of truth, she was not very politically involved at home in Belarus.
When President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected in August last year after widespread electoral fraud, large-scale demonstrations erupted across Belarus. About 250 athletes (the number grew later) signed a petition condemning the election fraud.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was not one of them.
– But during the protests, I posted a video on Instagram that I was against violence, she tells the Financial Times reporter in Warsaw.
She lost her $ 100 bonus as a penalty, but there was no more that time.
It was another post on Instagram during the Olympics in Tokyo that launched a series of events that made her a world news and placed her on Aleksandr Lukashenka’s black list.
And it really had nothing to do with politics from the beginning. Krystsina Tsimanouskaja is Belarus’ best sprinter in the 100 and 200 meters.
That is no guarantee of being sent to the Olympics – athletes who have been critical of Lukashenko are out of the question – but Tsimanouskaja had not violated any red lines.
However, she was upset when her coach during the Olympics ordered her to suddenly pull in the 4×400 meter relay, a distance she never ran. She sent a text message and asked if it was really true, but got no answer.
Then she wrote an angry post on Instagram. Ten minutes later, her coach heard from her and ordered her to delete the post. She did, but a few hours later, the state-controlled television in Belarus still showed what she had done.
– They said I had health problems, she tells the Financial Times. We all know that people who are completely healthy have ended up in psychiatric clinics because they said the wrong things.
She was ordered home to Belarus. Got 40 minutes to pack. A psychologist from a well-known psychiatric hospital in Minsk showed up unexpectedly and traveled with her to Haneda Airport in Tokyo with an official.
Krystsina decided not to go along. Once at the airport, she saw a Japanese policeman and with the help of a translation app, she made it clear that she was being taken back home against her will.
That was when she became a world news. She also contacted BSSF, a Belarusian organization based in Poland that helps athletes who have fallen victim to oppression in their home country.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaja is married and the BSSF advised her to contact her husband in Minsk immediately, before the authorities caught up.
– He packed in 30 minutes, jumped into the car and drove to the Russian border and then to Ukraine, she says.
This is the path many Belarusians have taken to come to Poland, a country that has granted over 10,000 humanitarian visas. And it was also to Poland that Tsimanouskaja finally arrived, after being escorted by Polish diplomats.
– When we flew over Russia, they constantly looked at the map and checked with the pilots so that no one tried to redirect the plane, she says.
That is how Belarus forced a passenger plane on its way from Greece to Lithuania in June in order to arrest a journalist wanted in Belarus. And the bodyguards who now protect her and her husband may unfortunately be needed.
– Every time we want to go out, we need permission, she says in an interview with Euronews.
Vitaly Shishov, a political activist who fled to Ukraine, was found hanged in a tree in Kiev last summer. There was no indication that he was planning to take his own life. There are suspicions that the KGB, the security service in Belarus, is behind it.
And Krystsina Tsimanouskaja no longer holds back on what she thinks of the man who rules her country:
– I wish that my country is free, I wish that every citizen could say what he or she wants. People are afraid to protest because they could end up in jail.
And it gives no protection if you are a famous athlete. Basketball player Jelena Leutjanka, 38, has played for Belarus in the Olympics twice, but was arrested in September last year, accused of participating in the protests and had to spend 15 days in custody.
– They tried to make life a hell for me, she says to the news agency AP. I had lice in my clothes and my hair. It’s so humiliating how they treat you, how they talk to you.
Leutjanka plays for a Greek basketball team and flew there since she was released. She has continued to criticize the regime from there and does not plan to return.
According to the BSSF, more than 100 athletes have been arrested in the past year and seven have been brought to justice, accused of political crimes. Many more have been prevented from representing Belarus in international competitions.
“Sport is an important instrument in Lukashenko’s propaganda,” BSSF chairman Aleksandr Apejkin told the Guardian.
– It is part of national politics, as in East Germany or the Soviet Union.
But Krystsina Tsimanouskaja no longer participates in that game. She hopes to represent Poland in the future instead.