Krystsina Tsimanouskaya: ‘I’m sure my career would be over if I was in Belarus now’ | Athletics

“It really feels like it was yesterday,” says Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, sipping from a glass of juice as she recalls leaving her old life behind. Just over two years have passed since the sprinter, ejected from the Belarus team at the Tokyo Olympics and fearing for her freedom if she returned home, sought refuge in Poland and faced a future fraught with uncertainty. Her story had spent several days in the international headlines but, once the glare faded, there were no guarantees a promising career would be able to regather momentum.

The road has been long and not without pain but Tsimanouskaya feels as if, at last, she is working from a position of strength. It is a sweltering summer day in Warsaw and she has just sweated through an hour’s training at Stadion RKS Skra, a sprawling and largely dilapidated old venue near the city centre. “I feel really, really good in myself,” she says. The best she has ever felt as an athlete? “Uh-huh. I’ve changed a lot in my technique, in my body, my life, my food, a lot of things, and it’s really helped me. Now I have two years’ work behind me.”

In Tokyo, Tsimanouskaya had competed in the 100m and was due to tackle her favoured 200m when, after publicly criticising her coaches for entering her in the 4x400m relay without her consent, she was told to return to Minsk and taken by team officials to Tokyo airport. Her fate in the hands of a dangerous, repressive regime would have been deeply precarious; she was able to find police protection before anyone could force her on to a plane and was eventually able to leave for the safety of Poland.

Tsimanouskaya has no wish to rake back over the sights, sounds and feelings of that tumultuous period now. “There was nothing in my head but I want to forget about this situation, even if it’s impossible.” It has taken painstaking sessions with a psychologist to come to terms in some form with what happened. “We worked through it a lot because I had panic attacks afterwards,” she says. “It was crazy. I was surprised when I had my first one, at a competition, because before that it had never happened to me. It was before the race, in my room, when I got out of bed.

“We also had to deal with my motivation. After Tokyo, there was no motivation for me to continue a career in sport.”

It helped that she was welcomed by the Polish athletics association, who she says assisted her financially and with sponsorship. At the time she spoke little of the local language but her peers were supportive, whether in domestic competitions or at a national team training camp. Her husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, a largely silent presence as she talks, has been with her throughout. In June 2022 she received Polish citizenship but a sizable stone in the shoe remained if she was to have another, happier, crack at the Olympics.

Tsimanouskaya (far left, No 9) competes for Belarus in the 100m heats during the Tokyo Olympic Games on 30 July 2021. Two days later she was sent home by her federation. Photograph: Andrej Isaković/AFP/Getty Images

When we meet in late July, Tsimanouskaya is proud of having run a personal best of 22.75sec in the 200m the previous week. “And I don’t think it was 100% of what I can do now, maybe 95%,” she beams. But she is frustrated that she may not be able to showcase her revival in Paris. World Athletics stipulates that three years must pass between an athlete changing citizenship and their eligibility to compete internationally for their new country; that period would not expire in time for Olympic qualification. Poland’s application to waive her waiting time is yet to be answered; during the interview she explains feeling left out in the cold and is concerned that, the news cycle having long since moved on, the authorities’ attention has similarly averted.

Out of the blue, those worries are allayed with good news on Sunday: World Athletics’ nationality review panel has allowed her to represent Poland with immediate effect, meaning she is eligible for this month’s world championships in Budapest and can glimpse next year’s Games. The task ahead is significant, not least because the women’s 200m entry standard has been lowered to 22.57sec, but her reactions on social media speak of how transformative the decision feels.

Back in the Warsaw cafe she reflects, even amid her state of uncertainty, that Poland has given her a fresh chance. At 26 her best years could lie ahead. “I’m sure my career would be over if I was in Belarus now,” she says. “There is no normal competition there.” Belarusians who make the grade can appear at Paris 2024 as individual neutral athletes, a controversial accommodation made by the IOC in response to the country’s role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Tsimanouskaya has little interest in the fortunes of her teammates from Tokyo.

“They aren’t friends, we don’t keep in touch and I’m not interested in that,” she says. “They don’t support me, they support the coach.” Did none of them call to enquire about her welfare after her expulsion? “No. Well, there was one but I don’t want to say who. We have some communication with him and his wife, and she came to see us when she was here in Warsaw. But he’s the only one and I don’t know why. Maybe I’ll see them in competition one day and I could ask, but I don’t want to.”

It hurts that she cannot return to Belarus, where a horrifying crackdown on perceived behaviour against the state has seen a number of sportspeople imprisoned or forced to flee. “Of course it makes me upset,” she says. “I wanted to meet my parents in Turkey but it was not possible, they couldn’t leave for a vacation and return safely because they are my parents. We only talk by phone or video call. We haven’t seen each other for two and a half years and I don’t know when our next meeting will be.”

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She does not hide her distaste for the status quo but, even now, she does not consider herself a political person. “I don’t understand anything in politics,” she claims, but there is acceptance that working in elite sport tends to demand a crash course. “I want them to be separate but I’m not sure that’s possible after everything that happened.”

Tsimanouskaya is escorted by police officers at Haneda international airport in Tokyo after refusing to board a plane back to Belarus and what awaited her there.
Tsimanouskaya is escorted by police officers at Haneda international airport in Tokyo after refusing to board a plane back to Belarus and what awaited her there. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

Poland’s reconfiguration after communism, symbolised by Warsaw’s growing status as a vibrant international city, gives her hope for a Belarus freed from Aleksandr Lukashenko’s grip. She thinks that could materialise within a decade but this is home now and she would not go running back. Life with Zdanevich, who helps coach her, is settled and the pair have a wide circle of friends. She has a side career as a fitness coach, with a client base of 13 and growing.

This level of stability has been hard won and, to her delight, the fire that propelled her towards the top is burning brightly again. “I just love what I do. I love my training, love my sport, love running. My big motivation is to come back to the Olympics, make a personal best there, and maybe win some medals.” A pause, a smile. “I know that’s hard in sprinting, usually the first three are Jamaicans, but …”.

Whether or not the door to Paris opens wide after this month’s upturn in circumstance, optimism has replaced the darkness and anxiety. “If not Paris then of course Los Angeles in 2028, why not? I can train a lot, change something in my technique and maybe in LA I will run 22.00, which is my dream. Who knows?”

Most of all, she wants her tale to be remembered as one of hope. “I just want to show other people that it’s possible to start your life, or your sport career, from the beginning again in another country and get better results than before,” she says. “And I think I’m showing it now.”