Kristina Timanovskaya, Belarus Sprinter, Becomes an Unlikely Dissident
She sparked the biggest political crisis of the Tokyo Olympics, but Kristina Timanovskaya did not want to be a symbol of repression in her native Belarus. She just wanted to run.
Ms Timanovskaya, a 24-year-old sprinter who specializes in the 200 meters, has become the center of an international scandal after her delegation tried to send her home after the Games. She complained in an Instagram video that her coaches signed her up for an event she had not trained for, the 4×400-meter relay, because they hadn’t done enough doping tests on her. other athletes.
“I will not say that politics entered my life, because in general there was no politics,” she said in a telephone interview, declining to give her location for security reasons. .
“I simply expressed my dissatisfaction with the technical staff, who decided to put me in the relay race without telling me, without asking me if I am ready to run,” she said. She said she was concerned that a poor performance at an unknown event could cause her injury or trauma.
Ms Timanovskaya then had no idea how quickly the situation would escalate, turning a sporting dispute into a major diplomatic incident that would make her a famous international cause and push her towards a life in a new country. Poland has offered to offer her a haven of peace away from Belarus and all it knows.
After Ms Timanovskay posted her Instagram video – which she later removed – Belarusian national team head coach Yuri Moisevich and deputy director of the Belarusian Republican Athletics Training Center Artur Shumak, went to Ms. Timanovskaya’s room. to the Olympic Village to persuade her to retract and return home. The order, they said, came from above their pay level.
“Put your pride aside,” Mr. Moisevich can be heard on a partial recording she made of the conversation. “Your pride will tell you, ‘Don’t do it. You have to be kidding ”and it will start dragging you into the Devil’s Vortex and twisting you.
“This is how suicide cases end, unfortunately,” he concluded.
Ms. Timanovskaya can be heard crying on the tape. At other times, she seemed defiant, refusing to believe that if she nodded and went home, she would be able to continue her athletic career.
Ms. Timanovskaya is an unlikely dissident. Born in eastern Belarus, she said she was partially deaf as a child and had multiple operations until her hearing was restored at the age of 12.
It was then that she was allowed to start physical education classes. Soon her teachers realized that she had a knack for running and jumping. At 15, relatively late for an elite athlete, she was sent to a special training school for Olympic hopefuls. At 18, she represented Belarus at competitions in Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Qatar and Sweden.
When protests erupted last fall after Belarusian strongman Aleksandr G. Lukashenko claimed victory in a widely contested election, Timanovskaya did not protest along with the hundreds of thousands of others. She mostly continued her grueling preparations for Tokyo, training from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. with her husband, a former runner.
“Yes, there have been protests,” she said. “I saw what was happening on TV and I was very worried. It was very difficult for me, and I even had to take a two week break because I was distracted by it all. I did not train because it was very hard.
As the government cracked down on protests, around 1,000 athletes signed an open letter calling for new elections and an end to the torture and arrests of peaceful protesters. As a result, 35 athletes and coaches were expelled from the national team.
August 3, 2021 at 10:33 a.m. ET
Ms. Timanovskaya was not one of them.
“I just wanted to prepare for the Olympics,” she said. “I didn’t sign anything, so no one would bother me.”
When she arrives in Tokyo for her first Olympic Games, she is amazed to see that she has entered the 4×400-meter relay in addition to her event, the 200-meter. She frantically tried to reach her coaches and the delegation, but when no one answered her calls, she fumed on Instagram.
“I spoke a bit emotionally,” she said, of the Instagram video which she later removed. “But it was so emotional because at first their attitude towards me was not respectful. And they pressured me and pressured me from the start.
When news of the video broke in Belarus and the authorities asked for an apology and later returned home, she began to fear the consequences of what had happened.
“Already, the moment I was taken to the airport, to my country on television, they showed news of me where they already said that I was not in good health and that I had to be removed participation in the Olympics, ”she said. “My parents called me and told me not to go home because it would be dangerous, since they have already started talking on television that I was mentally ill. It was obvious that when I arrived at the airport I would not be going home, but they would immediately take me somewhere.
When officials came to tell her to pack her things on Sunday, she said she knew she had to take a drastic step and seek asylum. Speaking on Tuesday, she said she never expected her rant against her coaching staff to turn into an international incident.
“I just don’t have an answer to that,” she said. “Absolutely nothing was said about the policy on my part, I just expressed my disagreement with the decision of the technical staff.”
She refused to talk about Mr. Lukashenko or his son Viktor, president of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee. She has not made any political statements, possibly to avoid compromising the safety of her parents, who remain in Belarus. Her husband, fellow sprinter Arseniy Zdanevich, fled to Ukraine as his case began to make headlines.
However, she hoped her story would serve as an example to her fellow athletes.
“I would really like the athletes to stop being afraid,” she said. “Disrespecting them should not be allowed because they do such a hard job. They train a lot. Bosses need to respect us as athletes, and for that, athletes need to stop being afraid and start talking openly about what’s going on.
Ms Timanovskaya expressed dismay that her urgent request to run the 200-meter sprint on Monday was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which had set up a temporary office in Tokyo to hear Games-related appeals. .
“I was ready to go on the track even after everything that happened,” she said.
Athletes rarely succeed in appeals against Olympic federations to the arbitration tribunal, which is partly funded by the International Olympic Committee.
Miguel Maduro, former Advocate General at the European Court of Justice, criticized the decision. Mr Maduro, also a former head of governance at FIFA, the organization that manages world football, said the court’s refusal to grant redress to Ms Timanovskaya was “inconsistent”.
He compared the ruling unfavorably with the treatment of Russian athletes competing in Tokyo under the auspices of the Russian Olympic Committee after Russia itself was banned as part of its punishment for a doping program sponsored by the State.
“It sets up a perverse system of incentives protecting athletes from rogue states but only to the extent that they continue to join those states,” Maduro said.
Ms Timanovskaya, who has never known a president in her country apart from Mr Lukashenko, said she avoided politics at all costs, despite the way politics prevailed on what was to be the biggest moment of his professional career to date.
“For me, the main thing is sport,” she said. “Politics for me is not a primary thing.”
Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting from Budapest. Tariq Panja contributed reporting from Tokyo.