Nils van der Poel Awarded Medal for Protesting Abuses of Beijing

Swedish skating star Nils van der Poel jumped for joy when he took the podium. got the gold medal For the men’s 10,000m speed skating event at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Years of hard training gave him world record victory.

Even in the moment of victory, he had a secret plan: to use his victory to denounce the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on freedom of speech, dissidents and ethnic minorities.

Mr van der Poel now acted according to this plan. On Thursday, he awarded the gold medal to the daughter of Gui Minhai, the Chinese-born Swedish publisher of books critical of Beijing, who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in China. It was the boldest protest ever by an athlete participating in the competition. Beijing Games.

“I understand that Gui Minhai will not be released because of this. I understand that the Chinese people will not cease to be persecuted because of this. But I really, truly believe in freedom of speech,” said Mr. van der Poel, in a small, impromptu ceremony to present the medal to Mr. Gui’s daughter Angela Gui. given in Cambridge, England.

“I really see myself as the guy holding the microphone in front of Angela,” Mr van der Poel said in an interview before the ceremony. “I hope human rights are at the center of that.”

The 2022 Winter Olympics, from the moment they were awarded to China, sparked controversy over the Communist Party’s suppression of opposition. Human rights groups have called for a boycott, citing China’s repression of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority, particularly in the Xinjiang region.

No athletes openly protested China during the Games. Chinese officials had warned athletes that they could be punished for making comments deemed unlawful, a threat Mr van der Poel says convinced him to abandon the idea of ​​refusing to appear at the medal stand in protest. “I thought this would be a very nice picture,” he said.

Mr. van der Poel, 25, has a reputation as an occasional maverick. tough training routine and open opinions on competitors.

Now he is also somewhat alone in using his Olympic reputation to openly punish China’s rulers. He talked about how he went from knowing little about China to honoring Mr. Gui.

“It’s surreal to give away what you’ve been fighting for your whole life,” he said. “But it also adds so much more value to the journey – I’m not just gliding in circles.”

Mr van der Poel said he waited until after the Games to make his voice heard in Beijing, fearing for his own safety and not wanting to be distracted by other athletes. She and Ms. Gui invited a New York Times reporter to deliver the medals, but requested that the news be kept until Friday, giving them more time to prepare for any backlash.

“I was a little intimidated,” said Ms. Gui in a small conference room, as Mr. van der Poel pulled the medal from its polished wooden box. She told him not to worry. “We don’t get any instructions either,” she said.

Ms. Gui, a 28-year-old graduate student at Cambridge University, said she knew others might view her and Mr. van der Poel as naive because they thought their actions could help change China.

Ms. Gui said, “But at the same time, I think it’s important to have some purity in trying to effect change.” I think it’s very important that Nils giving me his medal to honor my father is understood as honoring political prisoners like him, many of whom are increasingly Hong Kong and Uighur.”

In the years leading up to the Beijing Games, Mr. van der Poel focused vigorously on an educational program that included seven-hour bike rides and seemingly endless skating rink tours. He had little interest in the politics behind the Olympics.

“It was just ‘I’m an athlete, I’ll 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, especially in countries with poor human rights records. It was then that Mr. van der Poel first learned of Mr. Gui.

Mr. Gui was born in China and made a living as a broadcaster in Hong Kong. Among his books were paperbacks about the leaders of China, gruesome, frightening, and thinly sourced. Its main readers were Chinese travelers who secretly brought books back to mainland China, where there was a great underground appetite for news and rumors about the Communist Party elite.

Mr. Gui was abducted from a holiday home in Thailand by Chinese security guards in 2015. he is later shown He repeated the official line on Chinese state television from Beijing, where he voluntarily returned to China to respond to a deadly car crash more than a decade ago. But even after serving his sentence for this charge, Mr. Gui was held in China and was not allowed to return to Sweden, where he gained citizenship in 1992.

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 the train and kidnapped Mr. Gui. In 2020, 10 years in prison in jail for “illegally providing intelligence” to a foreign buyer. Ms. Gui and others said the accusation was absurd, as Mr. Gui was under constant surveillance and could not have acquired any real secrets.

Mr. van der Poel said he had been investigating Mr. Gui’s case in the months before the Olympics. He said he was uncomfortable with the idea that Mr. Gui, a fellow Swedish citizen, could be kidnapped and sentenced while abroad.

“I felt compelled to do something because I had the opportunity that very few people have,” said Mr van der Poel.

He broke his own world record in the 10,000m race in Beijing, beating runner-up by almost 14 seconds. He also won the gold medal in the 5,000m race, where he broke the world record last year.

Shortly after the games are over, he He told a Swedish news source He said it was “highly irresponsible” to allow the Olympics to be held there, given China’s repressive policy.

Mr. van der Poel’s gesture of medal might anger the Chinese authorities. They presented the Winter Olympics in front of a global audience as a validation of China’s – effective, disciplined, self-confident – centrally controlled political system.

Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, athlete groups and human rights organizations, last year it relaxed a decades-old regulation on protests. However, the committee still maintained strict restrictions on Olympic participants, denying them the right to make statements on the Games’ most high-profile platforms, such as the medal podiums or the playing fields.

Peter Reinebo, who is in charge of Sweden’s Olympic team in Beijing, supported Mr. van der Poel, who told Mr. Reinebo about his plan during the Games.

“I will support you all the way because I think it’s a great gesture for a great athlete to show their true values ​​and human rights values,” Mr. Reinebo said.

At their impromptu ceremonies in Cambridge, Mr van der Poel joked that it was a little easier to give a gold medal because he had two gold medals. “At least I can show my grandmother something,” he said.

Ms. Gui said she hoped Mr. van der Poel could one day get his medal back.

“Perhaps you can have him back when the last political prisoner is released,” he said, “and show it to your grandmother.”

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