Olympian From Belarus Refuses To Leave Tokyo, Fearing For Her Safety

Kristina Timanovskaya, a Belarusian runner, was taken to Haneda Airport on Sunday 1 August, at the request of Belarusian officials. Upon arriving, she pleaded to local Japanese officials to let her stay in Tokyo, the site of this year’s Olympics. According toThe New York Times, Timanovskaya was “worried about [her] safety,” saying authorities may imprison her back in her home country when she returned. She now seeks refuge in other countries. 

Belarusian officials refuted Timanovskaya’s statement, claiming her prompt return resulted from her worsening “emotional and psychological state.” She argues that this statement was false, as she never completed a medical assessment. Instead, Timanovskaya speculates that Belarusian authorities sought to punish her for publicly criticizing her team. Further, the 24-year old track and field athlete was only set to compete in the Women’s 200 meter relay race, but then placed in the Women’s 4×400 meter relay event without her consent. Frustrated by this last-minute move, Timanovskaya took to Instagram to criticize her coaches.

Following Timanovskaya’s post, she mentioned that officials directly warned her that she was subject to “[losing] her position on the national team, be deprived of work.” There were further “consequences” if she failed to comply with wishes for her to return to Belarus. This incident highlights a history of Belarus’ nation-state control through suppression of dissent, which has long involved journalists, activists, and athletes. 

According to the Atlantic Council, Belarus’ current president Alexander Lukashenko was dubbed Europe’s “last dictator” because of his notorious rule beginning in 1994. In his initial term, he was popular for proposing populist policies. Lukashenko’s leadership, however, became increasingly suppressive. Many criticized him for “imprisoning or… suppressing most of his rivals [and] political opponents.” Others assert his responsibility for rigging elections. Growing frustrations with Lukashenko’s regime sparked peaceful, pro-democracy protests in 2020, calling for him to step down. Like before, his response sought to attack those participating in these movements, many of whom included Belarusian Olympic athletes.

Amnesty International writes that Alexander Lukashenko, and more recently his son Victor Lukashenko, have had direct control over the “Belarusian National Olympic Committee” due to the president’s keen interest in sports. This control meant that any athlete who publicly spoke out against the regime was subject to severe consequences. For instance, “two-time Olympic Basketball champion” Yelena Leuchanka reports being imprisoned for 15 days after signing an open letter, demanding the Belarusian government’s accountability for its ongoing political oppression. Similarly, Alyaksandra Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medalist, lost access to publicly-owned pools and was accused of being a threat to national security, due to her continued opposition of ill-treatment by the government.

Furthermore, Lukashenko’s attempt to silence athletes and other human rights backers directly violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Specifically, Article 21 states nation-states that have ratified the treaty like Belarus, are responsible for ensuring citizens have the “right to peaceful assembly,” especially if it is “necessary in [advancing] a democratic society.” Concerted efforts by Lukashenko’s authoritarian policies to combat these peaceful protests directly infringe on human rights. 

Despite political suppression within the country, Belarusian athletes continue to fight for their rights. For instance, Alyaksandra Herasimenia spearheaded the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF). This recently formed group from a coalition of “sports officials and famous athletes” aims to “support [other] athletes” that have been “jailed or sidelined” for public disagreement with Lukashenko and his policies. Moreover, with legal guidance and financial backing, the organization dedicates resources to athletes to offer protection against government onslaught. Lastly, the foundation raises awareness about the Belarusian government’s continued political abuses through social media.

These efforts have provided Belarusian athletes the necessary platform to share their stories with a broader audience. Additionally, the group allows athletes to demand powerful sports committees and federations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to protect them from unfair treatment. The BSSF has successfully “ensured that a number of international sporting events” are not held in Belarus due to its reports. Such advocacy is critical at a time of little government accountability.

In Kristina Timanovskaya’s case, the BSSF played an essential role in disseminating her pleas. According to Human Rights Watch, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have shown support for Timanovskaya and offered their countries as a place of refuge. A week later, after Timanovskaya’s post, BBC stated that the IOC has “expelled two coaches” in connection with her case, condemning complaints. Ultimately, these positive developments are the result of persistent activism and collaboration amongst Belarusian athletes. Thus, ongoing issues in Belarus are now harder to ignore, especially as they come to the forefront in one of the world’s largest competitions – the Summer Olympics.