Belarus sprinter leaves Tokyo for Vienna after refusing to go home

CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya left Tokyo aboard a flight to Vienna on Wednesday, less than 72 hours after refusing to return home with her team.

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

The sprinter caused a diplomatic incident on Sunday when she said her coaches had cut her Tokyo Games short, demanding she pack her bags at the Olympic village and taking her to the airport against her wishes because she had publicly 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.

Tsimanouskaya had been scheduled to board a flight for Warsaw on Wednesday after Poland's government offered her a humanitarian visa. Instead, she departed on an Austrian Airlines flight scheduled to land in Vienna at 4:05 pm local time (1405 GMT)

She will go to Poland in the evening, said a member of the Belarusian community in touch with Tsimanouskaya, who also said that diplomats had told her that they changed her flight due to security concerns. The source did not specify the concerns and Reuters could not independently verify them.

Poland's deputy foreign minister Marcin Przydacz confirmed the athlete was still in the care of the Polish diplomatic services, but did not say where she would eventually land.

"Ms. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is under the care of the Polish diplomatic service," Przydacz said in a text message. "As we have indicated many times, for safety reasons we do not provide details of the flight route."

The Austrian foreign ministry confirmed she was on the flight to Vienna, but declined to comment on her final destination.

Hours earlier in Tokyo, a spokesperson for the Narita airport, Kazunori Hashimoto, told journalists waiting for Tsimanouskaya to board the flight to Warsaw at Gate 31 that the athlete had changed routes.

"(She) will not board the flight for Poland," said Hashimoto. "That is, there is a Reuters reporter on board who says they want to interview her. So the flight she will take has been changed."

A Reuters spokesperson said the news agency had been in contact with Tsimanouskaya and her representatives.

"Two of our reporters boarded the Warsaw-bound flight from Tokyo on Wednesday with the aim of documenting Tsimanouskaya's arrival in Poland," the spokesperson said. "Reuters is seeking to establish whether that played any role in the decision for Tsimanouskaya not to board the flight to Warsaw."

The International Olympic Committee said on Wednesday it had received a report from the Belarusian team after it started an investigation into Tsimanouskaya's claims she had been removed from the athlete's village.

"The IOC is opening a disciplinary commission to establish the facts in this case and to hear the two officials - Artur Shumak and Yuri Moisevich - who had been allegedly involved in this incident," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams.

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".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's regime of intolerable "transnational repression" in the matter.

The incident has focused attention on Belarus, where police have cracked down on dissent following a wave of protests triggered by an election last year which the opposition says was rigged to keep Lukashenko in power.

Belarusian authorities have characterised anti-government protesters as criminals or violent revolutionaries backed by the West, and described the actions of their own law enforcement agencies as appropriate and necessary.

Vitaly Shishov, a Belarusian activist living in exile in Ukraine, was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv early on Tuesday, and Ukrainian police launched a murder investigation. He led an organisation that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution.

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