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Of all the untoward incidents that might have been anticipated at the Tokyo Olympics, a sequence straight out of the Cold War playbook would have been very far down the list. Yet that is the essence of what has happened.
A Belarusian sprinter – 24-year-old Krystsina Tsimanouskaya – is currently in the Polish embassy in Tokyo, having spent time under Japanese police protection amid fears for her safety.Tsimanouskayaa said she was forcibly taken to the airport but refused a team order to fly home. The International Olympic Committee says that she is currently “safe and secure”, and both Poland and the Czech Republic are reported to have offered her humanitarian visas.
The episode appears to have begun as the sort of professional and personal dispute that can erupt in the highly charged atmosphere of top international sports gatherings, where so much is at stake. A gold medal – or any medal – potentially brings with it not just national and global fame, but fortune as well. Tsimanouskaya challenged a decision that she should run in the 4x400m relay, as well as the women’s 200m race that she had been selected and trained for, and criticised her coaches.
Such last-minute changes are not without precedent, and doubtless some are challenged and some not, with whatever resolution subsequently hammered out. What happened here, though, was that this apparent sporting clash rapidly turned political, with Tsimanouskaya’s complaint – which she made public on social media – branded a reflection of her supposedly dubious loyalty to her home country.
The Belarusian Olympic Committee said Tsimanouskaya had been taken off the team because of her “emotional and psychological condition”. Belarus state television accused her of lacking “team spirit”.
Tsimanouskaya for her part said that team officials had then given her an hour to pack, before escorting her to the airport to await a flight home. Associates said her main concern now was the risk of repercussions for her family.
It is quite a while – probably not since the collapse of communism across Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union that followed – that a leading athlete from this part of the world has sought refuge from their home country at an Olympics. Time was when international tours, whether sporting or cultural, could bring a predictable crop of defections. Performers would mysteriously disappear, or simply not show up for the journey home, only to reappear days or even weeks later under the protection of the host country. Often the defector concerned had been planning for years how to grasp what seemed to be their one chance of personal, creative or economic freedom.
Any drama in most cases took place behind the scenes. On rare occasions, however, it sprang into public view. One such was in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, when Rudolf Nureyev’s efforts to escape his Soviet minders at Le Bourget airport after the Kirov Ballet’s first tour of France entailed physical violence and a summit-level international stand-off – memorably staged in David Hare’s 2018 film, The White Crow. That is how things were.
These days, it is mostly Cuban baseball players wanting to stay in the United States that provide the last echoes of this particular aspect of the Cold War.
Unlike many Cold War defections, however, there is no suggestion that Tsimanouskaya arrived in Japan with a plan to defect. The turn of events seems rather to have been the result of circumstances, with professional – and, yes, political – disaffection coming together. The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation that is now championingTsimanouskayaa’s case was set up to protect sportspeople who had associated themselves with last year’s election protests.
At the same time, what has happened in Tokyo – on the fringe of these surreal pandemic Games – underlines both how much the world has changed in the past 35 years and what an outlier, in Europe at least, Belarus now is.
The very notion that Poland would be offering a defector refuge would have been unthinkable then, as Poland was a member, albeit a reluctant member of the eastern bloc, and Belarus was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. Now, these are two countries in opposing blocs, and not just Poland, but Lithuania and Ukraine, have become places of safety for many opposition activists and sympathisers from Belarus. They include the opposition leader in last year’s elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is exiled in Vilnius.
And while the mass protests that Belarusians staged this time last year – after Alexander Lukashenko claimed a sixth term as president – have lost steam, what has happened in Tokyo suggests that this is not the end of the story.
For all the hundreds of activists now in prison or exile, Tsimanouskaya’s personal revolt – and the authorities’ response – affords not only a glimpse of how the revolt simmers on beneath the repressive surface, but proof that it is not over yet.