Poland on Monday granted a humanitarian visa to Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who claimed her team tried to forcibly send her back to her authoritarian homeland from the Olympic Games in Japan.
The sprinter was in “direct contact” with Polish diplomats in Tokyo, said Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz, adding that Warsaw would do “whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career”.
Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has been cracking down on any form of dissent since mass protests erupted against him after an election last year deemed unfair by the West.
Tsimanouskaya was one of more than 2 000 Belarusian sports figures who signed an open letter calling for new elections and for political prisoners to be freed.
The 24-year-old athlete is expected to stay at the Polish embassy in Tokyo until her departure to Warsaw, possibly as soon as Wednesday, Poland-based dissident Pavel Latushka wrote on Twitter.
Tsimanouskaya spent the night in a Japanese airport hotel after asking Tokyo Olympics officials to help her avoid being put on a flight back to Belarus.
She was supposed to be in the Olympic Stadium on Monday to compete in the 200 metres heats but was instead the subject of intense diplomatic wrangling.
Her husband Arseny Zdanevich told AFP he had fled Belarus and was hoping to join his wife “in the near future”.
“I believe it would not be safe for me to be there (in Belarus),” the 25-year-old fitness trainer said by phone from Ukraine.
Poland is a staunch critic of Lukashenko’s regime and has become home to a growing number of dissidents.
The IOC has said UNHCR officials were involved in the case.
Tsimanouskaya alleged overnight that her team was attempting to send her home after she criticised the Belarusian athletics federation for entering her into a relay race in Tokyo without giving her notice.
She told the Belarusian sports website tribuna.com that her coach said her fate was being decided “not on the level of (the athletics federation), not on the level of the sports ministry, but much higher up”.
In the interview, she said she feared that Belarus “was not safe” for her anymore, after being given less than an hour to pack her things and being escorted to the airport.
The Belarusian Olympic Committee, run by Lukashenko’s son Viktor, claimed the athlete was not in a psychological state to remain at the Games.
Yuri Moisevich, the head coach, told Belarusian television – which has scorned the athlete – that “we had signals that something is going on with the girl”.
But the runner has said she is in good health and has no psychological issues.
The IOC has demanded a full written account of the incident from the Belarus Olympic Committee. Lukashenko and his son Viktor have been banned from Olympic events over the targeting of athletes for their political views.
Shortly before the Tokyo Games, Lukashenko warned sports officials and athletes that he expected results in Tokyo.
“Think about it before going,” he said. “If you come back with nothing, it’s better for you not to come back at all.”
Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya accused the regime of trying to “kidnap” Tsimanouskaya.
Many Belarusian athletes have supported Lukashenko’s critics and demanded an end to the crackdown.
The turmoil has also led to Belarus being stripped of the hosting rights for this year’s ice hockey world championship.