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Belarusian medallist, facing crackdown at home, clings to Olympic comeback dream

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Decathlete Andrei Krauchanka knows that reaching the Olympics is seldom an adversity-free path, but the political crisis in his native Belarus has made his quest for a final chance to compete on the world’s biggest sports stage even harder.

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The 2008 Olympic silver medallist said he was dismissed from the national team and sacked from his job after signing an open letter demanding new elections, and later briefly jailed for participating in protests against veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarusians have taken to the streets weekly to call for Lukashenko, accused of rigging a presidential vote in August, to step down. Thousands have been detained.

Deprived of state support, Krauchanka now hopes to qualify for next year’s Tokyo Games as an independent athlete competing under the Olympic flag.

“I don’t want to represent this regime in any way,” Krauchanka said.

Still recovering from an Achilles injury and after, he believes, contracting COVID-19 in prison, the 34-year-old thinks his chances of reaching the decathlon qualifying standard hang in the balance.

“I have to train, probably go to training camps abroad because it’s impossible to do this in Belarus,” said Krauchanka, who missed the last two Olympics because of injury.

“You would have to be selfish to just leave everything behind to go train as if nothing was happening.”

The Belarusian Olympic Committee referred questions about his case to the country’s athletics federation, which did not immediately comment.

Krauchanka says he was pulled out of his parked car on Nov. 8 in the capital Minsk and detained by balaclava-wearing riot police.

He was sentenced to 10 days in jail for taking part in protests, as were basketball star Yelena Leuchanka and other elite Belarusian athletes, some of whom have also lost their state employment or been kicked off national teams.

Krauchanka crossed paths with Lukashenko, who also heads Belarus’ Olympic Committee, several times after returning home with medals from international competitions.

“I always had a positive attitude towards him,” Krauchanka said. “But now, after all of this, I think quite differently.”

The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, which supports athletes jailed or sidelined for their political views, is collecting donations to help Krauchanka on the road to Tokyo.

“To train normally and prepare to achieve a result, your mind has to be in the training,” he said. “But my mind, unfortunately, is somewhere else. It is in the realities of Belarus, where thousands are in prison for no reason.”

editing by John Stonestreet