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World

A Belarusian Sprinter Has Been Offered Asylum In Poland After Refusing To Return Home

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A sprinter from Belarus at the Tokyo Games who says she was threatened by her own government has been granted a humanitarian visa to take refuge in Poland. From Moscow, Charles Maynes has the story.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Belarusian athlete Kristina Timanovskaya had hoped to be in Olympic Stadium on Monday, focused on running for a medal in the 200-meter sprint. Instead, she found herself at a Tokyo airport hotel under Japanese protection and running from the Belarusian authorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KRISTINA TIMANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In a brief video posted to social media on Sunday, Timanovskaya had pleaded for help, claiming Belarus's Olympic Committee was forcibly sending her home for criticizing its handling of the games. Timanovskaya's anger had been directed at Belarusian coaches who wanted her to compete in the 400-meter relay, a race she hadn't trained for.

DMTRIY NAVOSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "There wasn't an ounce of politics in her actions," says Dmtriy Navosha, the founder of Belarus' leading sports news website, Tribuna. But the incident follows a yearlong crackdown by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko on his opponents. Among the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets last year demanding free elections and an end to police violence were leading Belarusian sports figures.

NAVOSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Navosha says they risked their sporting futures but became models for the resistance. On Monday, International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams noted the IOC had issued its own penalties against the Lukashenko regime, including banning Lukashenko's son from heading the Belarusian delegation to Tokyo. The IOC, said Adams, was now working to guarantee Timanovskaya's safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ADAMS: In this particular issue with this particular athlete, the most important thing at the moment is our duty of care to her.

MAYNES: Poland now appears to be Timanovskaya's next stop after authorities in Warsaw offered her refuge and a chance to continue her sporting career. Her husband is reported to have left Belarus. But for Timanovskaya, a life once focused entirely on running races will now be chased by her home country's politics no matter where she goes.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Maynes in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.