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An Olympic Sprinter From Belarus Who Fled To Poland Tells Her Story


An Olympic athlete who resisted going home to Belarus is safe for now. Kristina Timanovskaya comes from a country where saying the wrong words at the wrong time can put you in danger from the authoritarian government. She criticized her coaches and then refused their effort to hustle her home. She's now safe in Poland while the coaches who tried to force her home have been expelled from the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Reporter Charles Maynes is following all of this from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there - good to be with you.

INSKEEP: I guess, Timanovskaya's been telling her story now. What's she saying?

MAYNES: Well, she said she made the decision following a call from her grandmother, who told her not to come home to Belarus. Her grandmother had seen some state television reports that were critical of her granddaughter. Timanovskaya insists she was never trying to be political. This was - she was just angry at her coaches, who at the last minute had entered her into a race she hadn't trained for. They wanted her to run in the 400-meter relay. She's a specialist in the 200-meter sprint.

And today, as you note, those two coaches, they had their accreditation revoked by the IOC. They're being sent home.

INSKEEP: Help me figure this out. This seems to be a personal thing between a player and a coach. But it somehow became a political thing back in the authoritarian regime of Belarus. What about putting her in one race or another could in any way be embarrassing to the government?

MAYNES: Well, this seems to be about fear at home in Belarus and the political system. The coaches made a mistake. They didn't have the right athletes ready for the 400-meter relay. Several hadn't passed their doping tests or hadn't submitted doping probes on time. So they asked Timanovskaya to step in at the last minute.

And she, of course, noted that she hadn't trained for it. It was dangerous. And it would certainly jeopardize her chances at success in the 200-meter sprint, which is her specialty.

INSKEEP: So they were trying to cover up in a way. And instead, it blew up into this very public disagreement. And they tried to hustle her home. Based on your reporting, what you know of Belarus, could somebody plausibly be in danger from the president, Alexander Lukashenko, for making that kind of remark, that kind of scene?

MAYNES: Certainly. This is a case where politics really found her because so much in Belarus really surrounds Lukashenko and his family. Her criticism of her coaches was seen as criticism of the Olympic Committee in Belarus. That's run by Lukashenko's son. You know, and certainly, Alexander Lukashenko pays close attention to sports. We know this. He sees medals as an extension of state and therefore his own prestige. You know, even in his good luck send-off to athletes before the games - usually a pretty low-key affair - Lukashenko told them to come home with medals or not to come home at all. You know, given the events of the last year, it's good reason to wonder whether that's a joke or not.

INSKEEP: Well, we mentioned that Timanovskaya is safe in Poland. But I wondered if safe is entirely the right word. Is she completely safe?

MAYNES: Well, if you look at the cases of other Belarusians who are in exile - this week, we learned of the mysterious death of Vitaly Shishov. He is an exiled activist from Belarus who was working out of Kiev, Ukraine. Shishov ran an NGO that provided aid to Belarusians fleeing the repressions. He went jogging on Monday and never returned. His body was found hanging in a park near where he lived 24 hours later.

Ukrainian police have since opened an investigation. They don't know whether this was suicide or faked to look like a suicide. And we certainly don't know. But, you know, I spoke with other exiled Belarusians who have little doubt that they're being followed and hunted by Lukashenko's security services.

INSKEEP: Sounds like Timanovskaya may face a long period abroad, a long period away from home.

MAYNES: Probably likely - she - the Polish authorities have offered her a chance to still compete in Poland - for the Polish team. And it's interesting to see in her - kind of her new slogan these days is, I simply wanted to run - the idea here being, of course, that she wanted to take place - take part in future competitions, not run from her government.

INSKEEP: Reporter Charles Maynes, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.