The pressures of being targeted by a repressive political regime have been revealed by dressage rider Olga Safronova in a candid interview with

This week Safronova became the second top sportsperson from Belarus to be granted a humanitarian visa by Poland, its immediate neighbour to the west. They and other Belarusian athletes had been branded “country traitors” for speaking out against the authoritarian President Lukashenko.

Lukashenko retained power in August 2020 after an election widely seen as rigged. There were huge protests in the capital, Minsk, with some 35,000 people arrested. More protests and arrests marked the anniversary last month. Many countries, including Canada, the US and the European Union announced economic sanctions last year.

The first high-profile bid for refuge by a Belarusian sportsperson was made by sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya during the Olympics itself. She criticised Lukashenko on social media; under the media spotlight, Belarusian officials tried to force her onto a plane home before she found refuge at the Polish embassy.

But the 29-year-old equestrian was prevented from travelling to Tokyo in the first place. Since June, when she realised she was at personal risk, Safronova has made secret arrangements to move her husband and horses to Poland.

Her visa was announced earlier this week. She told that she does not know when she will next see family or friends, as a visit would be unsafe.

The day before the August 2020 presidential elections, Safronova won the Belarusian National Dressage Championships. Nine days later she decided to use her sports profile to publish an Instagram post supporting her compatriots.

“People were being beaten and thrown into jails after peaceful demonstrations caused by disagreement with the election results. I expressed my love and solidarity to my people, because I was very worried about all the victims and the future fate of Belarusians, “ she said.

The image that started it all. (Olga Safranova Instagram)

“On the photo in this post, I stood with my husband under the white-red-white flag, which has become a symbol of protests against violence and against the current government. This post did not carry any political slogans or appeals, only words of solidarity, support and love to fellow citizens.”

The text of the post read:

Fortunately, during my years in sports, I have been proud of my country and the fact that I am a Belarusian, but today this pride overwhelms me as never before. Our people have never been so united. My heart breaks when every time I realize the trigger of this unity and live the pain of innocent people … But despite all this, just look at how Belarusians write their history! How they conquered their fear in the name of love for their country and for their neighbors! How ready they are to stand up for each other and not give offense to anyone! And today my heart is filled to the brim with love and pride for my people! And I sincerely believe that it is love that will save the world!”

The comments drew no reaction from officialdom for the next three months, during which Safronova completed a successful season, renewed her Tokyo qualifications and topped the national ranking. But in November she was about to go on vacation when the director of the Olympic training center for equestrian sports summoned her to his office.

“He showed me my post on his phone and said that I had to delete it. I did not agree, once again expressing to him my position and attitude to what was happening in my country.”

Safronova was then told her place in the elite program would not be renewed and she was expelled from the national team. She was made to sign a document terminating that contract. Under her signature she wrote that she disagreed with the decision, and sought an explanation.

“A little later I gave an interview about my situation to one of the largest independent sports media in Belarus. Unexpectedly, two weeks later I was sent an extended contract for 2021.”

No-one from team management contacted or spoke to her thereafter, so she continued to train. However, she found it impossible to attend FEI shows over the winter.

Her last show was the October 2020 CDI-W in Zakrzow, Poland. Safronova finished third in the Grand Prix with her Olympic hope, the Oldenburger Sandro d’Amour on 70.522%, and seventh in the freestyle with 71.3.

By that stage land borders in Belarus had closed because of Covid, and she had to see the Minister of Sport in person to obtain permission to compete. From November the permission was repeatedly denied. Coronavirus was always given as the reason, but Safronova believes it was in retaliation for her interview with the Belarusian press. In spring 2021, she revisited the Minister, and was again refused permission to ride in Europe, instead told to prepare for Tokyo at home, but after April 18th there were no CDIs to attend in that country leading up to the Olympics.

Until the last minute, Safronova had no idea she would be barred from travelling to Japan. She obtained all necessary papers for Sandro d’Amour to quarantine at Aachen with many other European horses.

In mid-June, in the run-up to the deadline for definite entries, she had to present Sandro d’Amour to the Belarus veterinary commission, who declared he was lame and unfit to compete. Because she had export papers, she swiftly took him to a veterinary clinic in Poland for a second opinion.

“After passing the veterinary examination in Poland and receiving a report that my horse is not lame and can take part in competitions, I realized that it was no longer safe to return home.

“In addition, I found out that I was included in the list of ‘Country Traitors.’ This list contained people who needed to be fired [from their employment] or, if they were already unemployed, never hired in Belarus again.

“I finally realized that I could not return home. I received the visa [from Poland] very quickly. I am very grateful to the people who helped me in the shortest possible time to do everything necessary for this! But then it took me two more months to complete all the documents for two more of my horses and move them to Poland.”

Belarus handed back its individual dressage place at the end of June, with no official reason offered.

Safronova now believes the decision to stop her going to Tokyo could have been made months earlier. This week alerted her that, according to the FEI database, her FEI registration was not renewed for 2021: that documentation oversight could have stopped her actually starting in Tokyo, even if she had safely arrived.

“I know that I paid the registration fees for myself and for my horse at the beginning of the year. I couldn’t even imagine that we might not be registered!” she said. Two days ago [September 8] she queried this with her national federation. “The Belarusian federation said they just forgot to do it, but I don’t believe this is true,” Safronova remarked. The FEI database now shows her as registered from September 8, 2021.

She now waits for the Polish equestrian federation and FEI to advise when she can ride under her new flag.

“After being denied permission to compete for almost a year, I look forward to returning to the international arena!” said Safronova.

“I sincerely hope that everything in our country will soon change for the better, and at the same time there will be conditions for the development of sports, fair competition, the rule of law, and freedom of speech will reign. And then, every Belarusian, wherever he or she is, will be able to return home and become a full-fledged member of society.”

Slovakia was next in line for Belarus’s place, but could not field a contender. It passed to Estonia’s Dina Ellerman. Such was Estonia’s pride in finally getting an equestrian to the Olympics that Ellerman was the female flag bearer at the opening ceremony.