The Czech Republic offered asylum on Monday to a Belarusian Olympic athlete who claimed her team tried to force her to leave Japan, as activists said she was seeking refuge in Poland.
Sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya, 24, spent the night in a Japanese airport hotel after asking Tokyo Olympics officials to help her avoid being put on a flight back to Belarus.
She was supposed to be in the Olympic Stadium on Monday, competing in the 200 meters heats, but was instead the subject of intense diplomatic wrangling over her future.
Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said his country was ready to welcome the athlete.
“The Japanese authorities have just confirmed to us that the Belarusian athlete Kryscina Tsimanouskaya has received our offer of asylum,” he said on Twitter, using a different spelling of her name.
“If she decides to accept it, we will help her as much as possible. The Olympics are not about politics, the methods of the (President Alexander) Lukashenko regime are absolutely shameful,” he said.
Meanwhile activists from an NGO that supports opposition Belarus athletes said Timanovskaya was trying to get to Poland.
“Kristina Timanovskaya filed documents to get political asylum in Poland,” Alexandr Opeikin, executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, told AFP.
“She’s OK, she’s holding up well. It’s clearly a stressful situation not only for athletes but for any person coming under such pressure.”
On Sunday, the country’s deputy foreign minister had said Poland was “ready to help” and had offered Timanovskaya a humanitarian visa.
Japanese and International Olympic Committee officials said the athlete was safe and was communicating with authorities.
“She assured us and has assured us that she feels safe and secure. She spent the night at an airport hotel in a safe and secure environment,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters in Tokyo.
He added that the IOC would be “talking again to her this morning, to understand… what she wants to pursue, and we will give her support in that decision.”
UNHCR officials were involved in the case, he added. Japan’s foreign and justice ministry as well as local police declined to comment.
‘I am under pressure’
Timanovskaya alleged overnight that her team was attempting to send her home after she criticized the Belarusian athletics federation for entering her into a relay race in Tokyo without giving her notice.
“It turns out our great bosses as always decided everything for us,” she said in an Instagram story video that is no longer available.
In a later Instagram post she added that she would not have “reacted so harshly if I had been told in advance, explained the whole situation and asked if I was able to run 400 meters.”
“But they decided to do everything behind my back,” she added.
Overnight, BSSF said officials from the Belarus team had tried to “deport” Timanovskaya.
And in a video the athlete appealed to the IOC to intervene in her case, warning: “I am under pressure and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent.”
Belarusian state television meanwhile has criticized Timanovskaya, with the channel’s presenter saying she “turned her time in Tokyo into a grandiose scandal.”
Adams said the IOC had demanded a full written account of the incident from Belarus’s Olympic committee, adding that the IOC has taken a series of actions against the committee in recent months.
Belarusian President Lukashenko’s disputed re-election to a sixth term last August led to the most serious political crisis in the country’s modern history, with protesters taking to the streets and authorities cracking down on the opposition.
In December, the IOC banned Lukashenko and his eldest son Viktor from Olympic events over the Belarus Olympic committee’s targeting of athletes for their political views.
Then in March, the IOC refused to recognize Viktor Lukashenko’s leadership of the Belarus NOC when he took over from his father, who had held the role since 1967.
Viktor Lukashenko was banned from attending the Olympics, along with a member of the country’s Olympic Committee executive board and several government officials.
A number of Belarusian athletes have supported Lukashenko’s critics and demanded an end to the crackdown.
The turmoil has also led to Belarus being stripped of the hosting rights for this year’s ice hockey world championship.