Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya was set to compete in the women’s 200 meters at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday, with hopes that her hard work would catapult her onto the awards podium. Instead, she has been thrust into the global spotlight for her moves off the track.
According to Timanovskaya, representatives of the Belarus national team tried to forcibly send her back to her home country after she criticized sporting authorities in an Instagram post on Friday. The 24-year-old athlete, citing fear she might be jailed, refused to board the flight from Japan on Monday – and has since been welcomed to Poland, where she received a humanitarian visa.
Her Instagram post was not explicitly political, but Belarusian athletes have faced retaliation, been detained, and excluded from national teams for criticizing the government following mass protests last year against strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian National Olympic Committee has said that Timanovskaya was withdrawn from the Games due to her “emotional and psychological state.”
CNN spoke with Timanovskaya on how her week unfolded.
Q: Tell us more about the trip to the airport on Monday
Timanovskaya: There were two men who escorted me to the airport. One of them was a representative of our NOC (National Olympic Committee) and the second was someone from our team – maybe a doctor or a psychologist. They didn’t say anything to me, they just took my suitcase and took me to the airport.
What made you decide not to board the flight?
Before I got into the car, my grandmother called me. She said that I should not go back to Belarus because it was not safe for me there. She said they were saying bad things about me on (state-run) television: That I was ill; that I had psychological problems.
My parents understood that if they said those sort of things about me on TV, that I could most likely not return to my home in Belarus… I don’t know where they would take me. Maybe to jail, or maybe, more likely, to a psychological hospital.
At the airport, I used a translation app on my phone to type that I needed help. I found a policeman and showed him my phone.
Did you imagine all this would happen as a result of your Instagram post?
No. I didn’t agree with the decision of our coach, who had decided that I should run the relays without my consent.
When I tried to talk with them, they ignored me. My trainers said it was not their decision to send me home – that it was just said to them to do this. My trainers didn’t tell me who told them to send me home.
When did you realize that your life in Belarus would never be the same?
It happened after I received the call from my grandmother. Before that, I thought that maybe I could return home without a problem. But after the statements were made about me on TV, I realized it would be dangerous.
I was really surprised that those statements were made about me on TV as I didn’t talk about politics or about the government. It was a big shock.
I really don’t want to say anything about the president, about politics. I prefer to stay away from this topic. I want to continue my sporting career and do what I can do.
How do you feel about missing out on the Games?
I am upset that I was denied my chance to be in the Olympics. I was ready for the games, especially for the 200 meters. They took away my dream of performing at the Olympics. They took this chance away from me.
I want to continue my sporting career. I am already thinking about the next Olympic games.
What is your message for the people of Belarus?
Do not be afraid, always state your opinion. We have to have freedom of speech and people must state their opinion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN’s Kara Fox contributed to this report.