Swedish figure skater Nils van der Poel jumped for joy when he get his gold medal for the men’s 10,000 meter speed skating race at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Years of grueling training have brought him won the world record.
Yet even in his glory days, he had a secret plan: use his victory to denounce the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of free speech, dissent, and dissent. politics and minorities.
Mr. van der Poel has now implemented that plan. On Thursday, he presented his gold medal to the daughter of Gui Minhai, a Chinese-Swedish publisher specializing in books critical of Beijing who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in China. It was the boldest protest of an athlete participating Beijing Olympics.
“I realize that Gui Minhai will not be free because of this. I realize that the Chinese people will not stop being oppressed because of this. But I really, really believe in free speech,” van der Poel said in Cambridge, England, where he presented the medal to Angela Gui, Gui’s daughter, in a small, impromptu ceremony.
“I really see myself as the one holding the microphone in front of Angela,” van der Poel said in an interview before the ceremony. “I just hope that human rights are at the heart of this.”
Ever since it was awarded to China, the 2022 Winter Olympics have sparked controversy over the Communist Party’s crackdown on dissent. Human rights groups have called for a boycott, citing China’s repression, especially against the Uighurs, a Muslim minority, in the Xinjiang region.
During the Olympics, no athlete openly opposed China. Chinese officials have warned athletes they could be punished for making comments deemed illegal, a threat that van der Poel says convinced him to drop his intention to quit. refused to appear on the podium to receive the medal in protest. “I think that would be a very cool picture,” he said.
Now, he too is a loner in using his Olympic fame to openly punish China’s rulers. He described how he went from knowing little about China to honoring Mr. Gui.
“It’s the surrealist giving of what you’ve been fighting for all your life,” he said. “But it also adds more value to the journey – it’s not just me who skates in circles.”
Mr van der Poel said he waited until after the Olympics to speak out because he was concerned for his safety in Beijing and did not want to create a distraction for other athletes. He and Ms. Gui invited a New York Times reporter to present their medals, but asked that the news be kept until Friday, giving them more time to prepare for any reaction.
“I was a little scared,” Gui said in a small conference room as van der Poel pulled a medal from a lacquered wooden box. He told her not to worry. “We didn’t get any instructions either,” he said.
Ms. Gui, a 28-year-old PhD student at the University of Cambridge, said she knew that others might view her and van der Poel as naive because they thought their gestures could help change China.
“But I also think a little naivety is important to try to make a change,” Ms. Gui said. “I think it is very important for Nils to award me a medal in honor of my father to be understood as honoring political prisoners like him, many of whom are increasingly Hong Kongers and Uyghurs.”
In the years leading up to the Beijing Olympics, van der Poel was intensely focused on a training program that included seven-hour cycling rides and the seemingly endless loops of an ice skating rink. He has little interest in the politics behind the Olympics.
“It was just ‘I’m an athlete, I’m going to do what an athlete does, and that’s it,’ he said.
Then, in late November, he watched an online presentation by Civil Rights Defenders, a Stockholm-based group that briefed Swedish athletes ahead of international events, in particular are in countries with lackluster human rights records. That was the first time Mr. van der Poel knew about Mr. Gui.
Mr. Gui was born in China and makes a living publishing in Hong Kong. His books include paperbacks of raw, loathsome, and flimsy origins about China’s leaders. Their primary readers are Chinese tourists who smuggle books back to mainland China, where there is an implicit craving for Communist Party elite news and gossip.
In 2015, Mr. Gui was kidnapped by Chinese security forces from a motel in Thailand. He was then displayed on Chinese state television repeated Beijing’s official word that he was ready to return to China to respond to a deadly car crash that took place more than a decade earlier. But even after serving his prison term for that crime, Mr. Gui was detained in China and not allowed to return to Sweden, where he naturalized in 1992.
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In 2018, two Swedish diplomats accompanied Mr. Gui on a train to Beijing, where he was scheduled to undergo a medical examination, but Chinese security officers boarded and take Mr. Gui away. In 2020, he has sentenced to 10 years jailed for “unlawfully providing intelligence” to a foreign national. Ms. Gui and others have said the allegation is absurd, as Mr. Gui is under constant surveillance and cannot obtain any real secrets.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, van der Poel said, he studied Gui’s case. He said he got into trouble thinking that Mr. Gui, who like him is a Swedish citizen, could be kidnapped while abroad and then sentenced to prison.
“I felt compelled to do something because I had an opportunity that very few people have,” said van der Poel.
In Beijing, he broke his own world record in the 10,000 meter race, beating the runner-up by almost 14 seconds. He also won a gold medal in the 5,000 meter race, an event for which he broke a world record last year.
Right after the Olympics ended, he told a Swedish news agency that allowing the Olympics to be held there was “extremely irresponsible”, given China’s oppressive politics.
Mr. van der Poel’s medal gesture could anger the Chinese authorities. They presented the Winter Olympics as a demonstration of China’s centrally controlled political system – efficient, disciplined, confident – in front of a global audience.
The International Olympic Committee, under pressure from athlete groups and human rights groups, last year relaxed its rule on decades-old protests. But the committee maintained tough restrictions on Olympic participants, denying them the right to make their statements on the highest podiums of the Games, such as medal podiums or arenas.
Peter Reinebo, who is in charge of the Swedish Olympic team in Beijing, backed Mr van der Poel, who told Mr Reinebo of his plans in the Games.
“I told him, I will support you in any way because I think it is a great gesture by a great sportsman, and also shows his true values and human rights. ,” said Mr. Reinebo.
At their impromptu ceremony in Cambridge, Mr van der Poel joked that giving away a gold medal would be a little easier because he had two. “At least I can show my grandmother something,” he said.
Ms. Gui said she hopes van der Poel can one day get his medal back.
“Perhaps when the last political prisoner is released, you can get it back,” she said, “and you can show it to your grandmother.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/25/world/asia/nils-van-der-poel-olympic-protest.html Nils van der Poel Awarding medals to protest Beijing’s abuses