Belarusian athletes Yana Maksimava and Andrey Krauchanka, a married couple currently living in Germany, announced on Tuesday they will not return to their home country.
“You can lose not just your freedom but your life,” Maksimava said of the Russia-backed tyranny in Belarus on her Instagram account.
Maksimava competed as a heptathlete in the 2012 London Olympics, while Krauchanka won a silver medal in the decathlon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and holds the Belarus national record for the event. The couple has a small child.
Maksimava announced her decision to stay in Germany after Tokyo Olympics competitor Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday refused orders to return to Belarus, seeking refuge at the Polish embassy in Tokyo instead. International media have begun describing Tsimanouskaya as a Cold War-style “defector” from the regime of dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Tsimanouskaya arrived in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday, traveling under Polish diplomatic protection, and will reportedly seek asylum in Poland with her husband.
A source in the Belarusian exile community said on Wednesday that she was supposed to fly directly to Warsaw from Tokyo, but her flight was changed due to “security concerns” – possibly inspired by the fate of dissident blogger Raman Pratasevich, who was kidnapped by the Belarusian government in May after his plane was forced down in what the airline described as a “state-sponsored hijacking.”
Maksimava did not mention Tsimanouskaya in her Instagram post on Tuesday, but she said she and her husband have been “thinking and thinking for a long time” about staying in Germany instead of returning to Belarus. She implied current events prompted them to make a final decision.
“To our great regret, now there you can lose not only your freedom, but also your life,” she wrote. “Here there is an opportunity to breathe deeply and be one of those who are fighting for the freedom of their people, friends, and relatives. We will definitely win!”
Maksimava added that she hopes “my sports career will continue, and I will have the opportunity to train and prepare for the next Olympic Games.” She signed off with the hashtags #WeRunFromBelarus and #HelpBelarus.
Radio Free Europe (RFE) suggested Maksimava and Krauchanka might have been influenced not only by Tsimanouskaya’s bid for asylum but also by a Belarusian handball coach fleeing from the capital of Minsk to Ukraine on Tuesday; and by the death of Belarusian refugee activist Vital Shyshou in Kyiv, who Ukrainian police believe might have been beaten and then hanged to make his murder look like a suicide.
The handball coach who fled to Ukraine, Kanstantsin Yakauleu, was detained by masked Belarusian police for 15 days in June for participating in an “unsanctioned anti-government rally.” Yakauleu’s team was punished in October 2020 for refusing to participate in a match after the Lukashenko regime arrested basketball player Alena Leuchanka for participating in protests and held her without access to legal counsel.
“After everything that has happened, I do not plan to return to Belarus. I have a little daughter. I cannot risk it,” Maksimava explained in an interview with the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation on Tuesday.
The Foundation, headed by Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Hersimenia and dedicated to helping athletes suffering political repression in Belarus, helped Tsimanouskaya make her appeal for international assistance.
Maksimava said when she trained in Belarus, she “didn’t have a doctor who could even advise [her] on how to recover, or what vitamins to take, or a massage therapist.”
“For 16 years I competed for the national team, which did not care for me. When my results dropped, I was sent to a psychologist, although I am a very strong athlete and all our management knows this, but no-one was able to help me reach the desired heights,” she said.
Tsimanouskaya was also treated as if she might be mentally unwell, as the Belarusian Olympic Committee – directly controlled by the Lukashenko regime through the dictator’s son Viktor – said it pulled her from the Tokyo Games because of her “emotional, psychological state.”