Belarusian Olympic sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya, who refused to fly home fearing she would be arrested, has arrived in Poland, where she has been granted a visa on humanitarian grounds.
Upon her arrival to Warsaw on Wednesday evening, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz thanked “all Polish consular and diplomatic staff involved, who flawlessly planned and secured her safe journey.”
“Poland continues to show its solidarity and support,” he added.
Timanovskaya arrived in the Polish capital via a transfer through the Austrian capital Vienna, after first leaving Japan on Wednesday morning.
The 24-year-old athlete was set to compete in the women’s 200 meters at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday, but instead said team officials tried to forcibly send her back to Belarus against her wishes after she criticized sporting authorities. Her drama-filled plight has dominated global headlines around the Games and while her comments were not overtly political, her case has heightened fears of the safety of those who speak out against Belarusian officials.
Timanovskaya was seen arriving at Tokyo’s Narita airport on Wednesday morning with luggage and wearing blue jeans and a blue sweatshirt. She later boarded Austrian Airlines flight OS52, which took off at 11 a.m. local time.
The flight landed at Vienna International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, live footage on Reuters showed.
The flight changed course slightly over western Russia and avoided Belarus airspace. Many European airlines have diverted to avoid the country’s airspace since Belarus forced down a plane carrying an opposition blogger and his girlfriend in May.
Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minsiter Marcin Przydacz told CNN earlier on Wednesday that Timanovskaya’s husband, Arseni Zdanevich – who left Belarus and entered Ukraine on Monday – had also applied for a humanitarian visa and that “Poland issued him such a visa.”
Przydacz said in a tweet that Timanovskaya was “being taken care of by the Polish diplomatic service” but “due to security considerations we do not disclose the flight details.”
In an Instagram post, Timanovskaya said team officials had made her pack her belongings, saying she was being cut from the Olympic team and flown back to Minsk. She was taken to Haneda airport on Sunday but refused to board the flight from Japan saying she feared for her safety and that she would be jailed in her home country.
Timanovskaya said she was threatened by team officials for going against a decision to enter her into the 4x400 meter relay – an event she had not competed in before – without her consent. She said her trainers didn’t tell her who had made the decision to send her home.
Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Timanovskaya said she was upset that she was denied her 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,” she said.
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said on Wednesday the IOC would open a “disciplinary commission” to establish the facts of the case and as part of that would hear from national head coach Yuri Moisevich and Belarusian sports official Artur Shumak. Adams also said the Belarus National Olympic Committee had submitted a written report on the situation.
On Tuesday, the IOC launched a formal investigation into the incident.
The Belarus NOC said Timanovskaya was withdrawn from the Games due to her “emotional and psychological state.” However, Timanovskaya refutes that claim, saying no doctors had examined her and that she had no health problems or mental issues.
Timanovskaya told CNN she realized she might be in danger when she called her grandmother before she was bundled to the airport by team officials.
“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,” Timanovskaya said.
“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, Timanovskaya said she used a translation app on her phone to type that she needed help and showed it to a Japanese policeman.
Though her Instagram post was not explicitly political, 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, who has ruled the eastern European country since 1994.
Thousands of people were arrested in the protests, which were brutally suppressed by authorities amid widespread reports of abuse and torture.
While Timanovskaya’s case was unfolding, a Belarusian activist was found dead in a park on Tuesday in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Vitaliy Shishov was head of the Kiev-based Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU) organization, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution.
The activist was found hanged in a forested area of a park near his home. Ukrainian police opened a criminal case and said they would investigate whether Shishov’s death was a suicide or “premeditative murder meant to look like suicide.”
What next for Timanovskaya?
It is unclear where Timanovskaya will end up but several offers have been extended to the athlete.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he spoke with Timanovskaya and assured her she could count on Poland for support. Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz told Sky News they expected her to visit Poland and “stay there for at least a couple of days.”
He said Poland has offered her opportunities to pursue her sporting career in the country but “of course (it’s) up to her,” he said.
“We know that her training center is in Austria, and her coach is also placed in Austria. She’s waiting for her husband to join her in Warsaw. So probably it will be their decision, whether they want to stay in Poland or continue any other travel to any other European state and she is very much welcome to stay in Poland.”
After Timanovskaya landed in Vienna on Wednesday, Austrian State Secretary Magnus Brunner said that they were “very happy that she is safe here.” Brunner also said she would “travel on to Poland at some point,” adding that it “will be up to her what happens next and whether – and where – she applies for asylum.”
Przydacz said it was “most important” Poland stepped in and stopped Belarus from “hijacking people to force them against their will” to return home.
“We gave them an opportunity to live and to come to Poland, safe and secure,” he said.
Poland has received 120,000 visa requests from Belarus since President Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in August last year, Przydacz said.
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Amy Cassidy, Antiona Mortensen, and Gawon Bae contributed to reporting.