Olympic defector Krystsina Tsimanouskaya: ‘Eventually, we will win’


If Krystsina Tsimanouskaya were not at risk of being poisoned by Belarusian state security forces, she would perhaps have chosen chlodnik, a cold beetroot soup served with kefir yoghurt and dill. It is a national dish of both her native Belarus, the country from which she has just defected, and Poland, her new home, where she finds herself under 24-hour protection. As it is, the Belarusian sprint champion is having nothing. Unless it is tested by the security services, she is not permitted even bottled water.

We meet just a week after the 24-year-old’s escape to Poland from the Tokyo Olympic Games made international headlines. After a dispute with Belarusian sports authorities, officials from the repressive regime, led by president Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, tried to bundle her on a plane back home. Instead of being forcibly returned to what looked like a precarious future, Tsimanouskaya, aided by a translation app, approached Japanese police in Tokyo and asked for sanctuary. Poland offered her protection.

So here I am, waiting for her at Flaming & Co, a restaurant in Warsaw’s embassy district, and the kind that uses only French butter from grass-fed cows and olive oil from a particular province in Andalucía. Tsimanouskaya, just days into her new life, had no idea where to meet. I selected somewhere spacious and central that I thought would be easy for her protectors to monitor.

I arrive early, curious to see if security agents will comb the place. Sure enough, half an hour before Tsimanouskaya gets here, two well-built men with bulletproof vests under their shirts and earpieces walk in.

At one minute to 11am, early because of her frenetic post-defection schedule, Tsimanouskaya arrives, accompanied by her husband. She is wearing jeans and a simple pink T-shirt, her straight blonde hair worn down. She holds my gaze without smiling. On her face, I can see days of stress and perhaps a touch of fatigue at all the attention.

I ask if she would like to look at a menu. “No,” she says. Maybe drinks at least? “No,” she repeats gravely. “We can’t.” After the poisoning of the Skripals and, more recently, the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, there are no chances to be taken. Thanks to the KGB — Belarus’s intelligence services kept the name after the fall of the USSR — this is not going to be a normal Lunch with the FT.


Flaming & Co

Fryderyka Chopina 5, 00-559, Warszawa

Melon and prosciutto 42 zlotys

Chlodnik z botwinki (cold beetroot soup, buttermilk, kefir, hazelnuts, eggs) 24 zlotys

Badoit sparkling water 20 zlotys

Latte 17 zlotys

Tip 20 zlotys

Total 123 zlotys (£24)

A little shamefacedly, I order melon with prosciutto. I ask my non-eating guest what it feels like to be kicked out of the Olympics and lose one’s homeland all in a week. “It was very hard. I didn’t understand what happened, nor why it happened,” she says in Russian. “But when I came to Poland, and my husband arrived, we sat down and thought, well, here we are, there’s nothing we can do now. We just have to carry on living.”

Can she reconstruct those final hours? “It started the day of my 100-metre race. When I went back to the Olympic Village, I saw that I was scheduled to run the 4 x 400 relay,” she begins, adding that the officials needed someone to fill in after forgetting to submit drug tests for some of the original runners.

“But I had never run that distance, never once in my entire life. It was shocking that they should have made that decision without asking me.” Now she is agitated. “So I texted to ask if this was true, but they wouldn’t answer. It was total disrespect for me as an athlete. So I went on my Instagram and said just that.”

Ten minutes later, a Belarus sports official called to say she must delete the video. If she did not, she could be ejected from the team. She did as she was told, only to find a few hours later that Belarusian TV was showing it anyway.

“The next day, Belarusian TV started saying I had mental health issues,” she says, speaking rapidly now. “Yes.” She looks me in the eyes. “We know of many cases where completely healthy people have been sent to psychiatric hospitals for speaking their mind.”

Tsimanouskaya had 40 minutes to pack. “The next thing I know there is a psychologist telling me to go with him and leave my phone behind. He starts telling me that he worked in Navinki, the psychiatric hospital where they put crazy people like me, suicide cases and murderers. Then he says: ‘Go on. Shout at me. Cry.’ But I just sat there and said I’m not going to do any of that.”

My melon arrives. It is nice and ripe, and the prosciutto is cut thin and wrapped around it the way it should be. It’s a huge portion. I could probably get away with eating just that.

“Where did the order come from?” I ask.

“I think it’s obvious,” she smiles. “There is only one person who can give orders from Minsk.”

Is this her first entanglement with Belarusian politics? She didn’t put her name to the open letter, signed by some 1,000 Belarusian athletes, against state suppression, after Lukashenko claimed victory in last year’s presidential election.

“I didn’t want to risk being sacked, I wanted to train for the Olympics,” she says. “But during the protests I did post a video on Instagram saying I was against violence. After five minutes, they called saying ‘your video has been seen at the top, you have to delete it, otherwise there will be problems’.” She refused, and lost her athlete’s bonus — about $100.

We are sitting in the shade, and I notice Tsimanouskaya is shivering. “I have very few clothes,” she laughs, for the first time I think. “In Tokyo, I only had the clothes they gave me, plus a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.” I offer her an old navy Gap pullover that I have with me. She puts it on, and I am proud on its behalf as I see it stretch over the rock-hard muscles of her arms.

Has she been shopping since she came to Poland? She can’t. “Why not order online?” I suggest. She can’t do that either. “The thing is, we don’t know our address,” she laughs again.

“It’s all good,” she rushes to explain. “This way they don’t have to ban us from telling people where we live. We have a lovely room. There is a cook, and everything is delicious. We are very grateful to Poland for the welcome and protection.”

I can see she would hate to come across as ungrateful. She might be a champion runner, but when it comes to matters of life and death she is a young woman who has just caused a dictator worldwide embarrassment. “Lots of people send me their support, but there are also those who don’t,” she adds, looking down at her hands. “One message said they should rip my stomach open.”

All this time I have been digging into my melon and prosciutto. I ask if she would have liked it. What is it? she asks. She gasps when I explain. “Melon and ham? You mean sweet fruit with meat?” She gives my plate a look implying she may have seen more disgusting things in her life, but not that many. “No, I wouldn’t eat that.”

What does she eat? Toast with avocado for breakfast. For lunch, fish or chicken. She avoids other kinds of meat, especially before competitions because digesting red meat consumes too much energy. Instead, she has vegetables and, for carbohydrates, rice and buckwheat. Do I know buckwheat? Now it’s my turn to be scandalised. Poland is the world capital of buckwheat.

After her grandmother warned her not to return to Belarus following her fight with officials, Tsimanouskaya made a surreptitious call to the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, a dissident organisation. Her husband had to leave Belarus before authorities tried to stop him. “He packed in 30 minutes, jumped in the car and drove to the Russian border and then to Ukraine.”

Other Belarusians have taken the same escape route to Poland. Most countries, including Poland, stopped air links with Minsk in May after Lukashenko’s regime intercepted a plane carrying Roman Protasevich, an exiled opposition activist. Would-be escapees were obliged to flee overland.

In the past year, more than 12,000 have been given humanitarian visas to Poland, making Warsaw an overnight hub for Belarusian dissidents. There are so many here that underground businesses have sprung up to fetch people’s dogs and cats so exiles can be reunited with their pets.

In the cab to Tokyo’s Haneda airport Tsimanouskaya was escorted by the psychologist and a representative of the Belarusian Olympic Committee. She must have been terrified, I say. “I was thinking, what should I do if I can’t find the police? Should I tear up my passport? Start running?”

In the event, she quickly found some airport police and typed out the message, translated into Japanese, that would change her life: “I need help. They are trying to take me out of the country by force.”

Poland was among the first countries to offer sanctuary. “It was close for my husband to join me and for my parents,” she says, explaining her choice. Besides, she had always liked it. “I won my first medal here, at the European Under-23 Championships.”

The flight was like a spy thriller. At the last moment, two Polish consuls led her on to a different plane to put journalists — and any malicious state entity — off the scent. “When we were flying over Russia, the consuls were constantly glancing at the map and checking with the pilots that nobody was trying to divert the flight. When we left Russian airspace, they sighed with relief and broke into smiles.”

The details of her escape recounted, we turn to Tsimanouskaya’s life before she became a celebrity of the new cold war. She comes, she says, from a “normal Belarusian family”, and was brought up in a tiny town. Her father was a fireman, now retired, and her mother still works at a bank.

We move to her career, and now she’s beaming. As a child, she didn’t attend sports lessons because of health problems. But at 13, she was allowed to return to PE classes. It turned out she was a natural.

I have finished my melon and order chlodnik. “The soup?” she asks, her face lighting up. Now that’s something she approves of. She even makes it herself.

“I started sport at 14 and joined the Olympic team at 18. By 19, I was the Belarusian sprint champion and nobody has ever beaten me since,” she says. Sports stars in Belarus have certain privileges but are expected to show absolute loyalty to the regime and personal reverence to President Lukashenko, whose elder son, Viktor, is head of the Belarusian Olympic Committee, and whose younger son Dmitry runs the Presidential Sports Club.

I had heard that, when she was in Tokyo, she got an order saying she had to be at work at a government ministry in three hours. What was all that about? “In Belarus, many athletes are officially employed by law enforcement departments, such as the armed forces or border forces. I was in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” Surely she didn’t have a rank? “Yes, I did.” It turns out I am talking to a lieutenant, licensed to carry a lethal weapon.

Did being a sports star make her rich? She splutters. In the early years of her career, she was paid less than $200 a month. “We also got a small room in a block of flats, nine square metres for the two of us, and a bathroom shared with another family. There were several flats per floor and we all shared a kitchen, so if you left your food there, it got stolen. Our parents sent us money.”

Eventually, she got a stipend, enabling her to eat better food and buy protein supplements. “In Belarus there are no sponsorships, just presidential grants,” she says. “We only really made money by going abroad to commercial competitions where we could win cash prizes. But during Covid, the permits dried up.” Only athletes loyal to the regime got to travel frequently.

Why didn’t Lukashenko allow others to go? “I don’t know. I’m not Lukashenko. Call him and ask. Maybe he was afraid we would give interviews.”

I ask if she’s vaccinated. “Yes, with Sputnik,” she says, pulling a face, adding that most European countries don’t recognise it.

Would she like to run for Poland? “The problem is it takes three years to change sports nationality,” she says. It will be tight to make it by the Paris Olympics in 2024.

A waiter brings my chlodnik. It is served in a soup plate, not a bowl, in the typical Polish way. There is something white in the middle that I take for mozzarella. When I cut it with my spoon, yolk comes out. It’s a poached egg.

“That’s weird,” says Tsimanouskaya, clearly unconvinced by the Polish variation on tradition. “In Belarus, we get a separate plate with egg, beetroot, cucumber, dill and potatoes, and another one with kefir, and we mix it all up.”

I ask again about the protests in Minsk last year against Lukashenko’s disputed re-election. Tsimanouskaya and her family lived on the outskirts of the city and the roads were blocked by riot police. Did she imagine the protesters could prevail?

“When we saw thousands in the streets, we were sure that yes, the nation would win. But when they started beating people and shooting them, everybody became really scared,” she says. “Eventually, we will win and all come back to a new, free Belarus. We just don’t know when.”

Some colleagues have blocked her on social media. “I am sure most did because they were ordered to. That’s their decision. I have decided not to be scared and silent any more.”

All the time we have been talking, her husband has been sitting there smiling. I comment on the tattoos on his arm, one of which records their wedding date. He’s a runner too, and one of her coaches. They have been together for eight years and married for three. For their honeymoon, they came to Poland on a road trip.

“Maybe we planned all this back in 2018,” she winks, mocking the regime’s officials’ accusation that her defection had been premeditated.

I ask if she thinks Belarusian authorities might try to kidnap her. She says she feels safe in Poland and has even started to train, though of course she can’t tell me where. I marvel at the good publicity Warsaw is getting by saving a runner in distress.

An hour and a half has passed and her time is up. She struggles out of my pullover and hands it back before disappearing into a waiting car. When I leave a few minutes later, I catch a glimpse of a Rolls-Royce and two new security agents. One of the waiters tells me that it is the head of a loan firm, mindful of running into an unhappy customer. Clearly I have chosen the safest place in Warsaw.

Magdalena Miecznicka is a journalist and author

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