(Reuters) – One year ago, sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya’s life was upended when she refused to board a plane back to her native Belarus after being kicked out of the Tokyo Olympics by her team.
What began as a controversy over Tsimanouskaya’s entry in the 4×400 metres relay snowballed into a defection that became one of the biggest stories of the Games and highlighted the pressure Belarusian athletes face for challenging authority.
Forced out by her national team after criticising coaches for entering her in an event that was not her customary distance, Tsimanouskaya feared for her safety if she returned to Belarus and sought refuge in Poland.
She is in the process of receiving Polish citizenship and the necessary documents to compete at national team level there.
The 25-year-old also wants another chance to compete at the Olympics and hopes to run at the 2024 Paris Games in the 200m, the event she had been set to run the day after Belarus removed her from the team.
“I’m disappointed that I didn’t compete in the distance I had prepared for,” Tsimanouskaya told Reuters in a video interview from her home in Warsaw.
“But I’m not losing hope. I’m still training here. I dream of going back to the Olympics and this time run my distance and show decent results.”
Tsimanouskaya has only been able to run in lower-level meets as she awaits citizenship and says she misses elite competition.
“I’m grateful to Poland for having let me enter some competitions,” she said. “But as an athlete who competed at the Olympics, it was tough to realise that I now was running at competitions with children.”
Belarusians and Russians are currently barred from competing at international athletics meets because of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
Tsimanouskaya became a symbol of resistance in Belarus, where opposition figures and those critical of the authorities have been prosecuted, jailed or fled since mass protests against leader Alexander Lukashenko in 2020.
The protests, followed by a violent crackdown on demonstrators, erupted after Lukashenko seized a sixth presidential term in an election that observers say was rigged. He denies electoral fraud.
“I didn’t go to the Olympics to represent Lukashenko’s authority,” she said. “I went to the Olympics to represent Belarus. And for me, Belarus does not equal Lukashenko or the authorities.”
Tsimanouskaya is slowly building a new life for herself in Poland, where she plans to study and hopes to one day open a gym with her husband Arseni, a fitness trainer.
She has also had her share of disappointments.
In addition to being sidelined from international athletics as a Belarusian national, Tsimanouskaya said some who had pledged their support since her defection had not followed through.
“I don’t see myself as a hero, but maybe my actions will serve as an example for someone,” she said.
“Over time, my life has started to fall into place. I’m continuing my career and making plans for the future. It shows that people shouldn’t be afraid.”
(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Peter Rutherford)