Swedish skating star Nils van der Poel jumped on the podium for joy when he received his gold medal for the men’s 10,000 meter speed skating race at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Years of grueling training had earned him the world record victory.
Even in his heyday, however, he had a secret plan: to use his victory to expose the Chinese government’s fierce crackdown on free speech, dissent and ethnic minorities.
Mr. van der Poel has now acted on this plan. On Thursday, he presented his gold medal to the daughter of Gui Minhai, a Chinese-Swedish publisher of books critical of Beijing, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in China. It was the boldest protest from an athlete ever to compete in the Beijing Games.
“I realize that Gui Minhai will not be released because of this. I realize that the Chinese people will not stop suffering oppression because of this. But I really, really believe in freedom of speech,” Mr van der Poel said in Cambridge, England, where he presented the medal to Angela Gui, Mr Gui’s daughter, in a small ceremony. improvised.
“I really see myself as the guy holding the microphone in front of Angela,” van der Poel said in an interview before the ceremony. “I just hope that human rights will be at the center of it all.”
Since being 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 Chinese repression, particularly against Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, in the Xinjiang region.
During the Games, no athlete openly protested against China. Chinese officials had warned the athletes they could be punished for making comments deemed to be against the law, a threat which Mr van der Poel said convinced him to drop the idea of refusing to appear on the medal stand in protest. “I thought that would be a very cool image,” he said.
Mr van der Poel, 25, has a reputation as an occasional maverick with a strenuous workout routine and candid opinions about rivals.
Now he’s also a bit of a loner, using his Olympic fame to openly berate Chinese leaders. He described how he went from knowing little about China to honoring Mr. Gui.
“It’s surreal to give what you’ve fought for all your life,” he said. “But it also brings a lot more value to the journey – that it’s not just about skating in circles.”
Mr van der Poel said he waited until after the Games to speak out because he was worried about his own 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 their medal presentation, but asked that the news be held until Friday, giving them more time to prepare for any backlash.
“I’m a little intimidated,” Ms Gui said in a small conference room as Mr van der Poel took the medal out of its lacquered wooden box. He told her not to worry. “We don’t receive any instructions either,” he said.
Ms Gui, a 28-year-old Cambridge University graduate student, said she knew others might view her and Mr van der Poel as naive to think their gesture could help change China.
“But I also think a bit of naivety is important in trying to bring about change,” Ms Gui said. “I think it’s very important that Nils presenting me with his medal in honor of my father is understood as honoring political prisoners like him, many of whom are increasingly Hong Kongers and Uyghurs.”
In the years leading up to the Beijing Games, Mr van der Poel zealously focused on a training regimen that involved seven-hour bike rides and seemingly endless circuits of an ice rink. He had 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 briefs Swedish athletes ahead of international events, especially those in countries with grim human rights records. It was the first time Mr. van der Poel had heard of Mr. Gui.
Mr. Gui was born in China and earned his living as a publisher in Hong Kong. His books included grim, scathing, low-quality paperbacks on China’s rulers. Their main readership was Chinese travelers who brought the books back to mainland China, where there is a great underground appetite for news and rumors about the Communist Party elite.
In 2015, Mr. Gui was abducted by Chinese security agents from a vacation home in Thailand. He was later shown on Chinese state television repeating Beijing’s official line that he had voluntarily returned to China to answer for a fatal car crash that had occurred more than a decade earlier. But even after serving time on the charge, Mr Gui was detained in China and not allowed to return to Sweden, where he was granted citizenship in 1992.
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In 2018, two Swedish diplomats accompanied Mr. Gui on a train to Beijing, where he was to undergo a medical examination, but Chinese security officers boarded the train and abducted Mr. Gui. In 2020, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “unlawfully providing information” to a foreign recipient. Ms. Gui and others said that this accusation was absurd, because Mr. Gui was under constant surveillance and could not have acquired any real secrets.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, Mr. van der Poel said, he researched Mr. Gui’s case. He was troubled, he said, by the idea that Mr. Gui, who is like him a Swedish citizen, could be abducted abroad and then sentenced to prison.
“I felt compelled to do something since I had the opportunity that very few people have,” Mr van der Poel said.
In Beijing, he broke his own world record in the 10,000 meters, beating the second by almost 14 seconds. He also won a gold medal in the 5,000 meters, an event in which he broke the world record last year.
Shortly after the end of the Games, he told Swedish media that it was “extremely irresponsible” to allow the Olympics to be held there, given China’s oppressive policies.
Mr van der Poel’s medal gesture could irritate the Chinese authorities. They presented the Winter Olympics as a vindication of China’s political system of centralized control – efficient, disciplined, confident – before a global audience.
The International Olympic Committee, under pressure from athlete groups and human rights organisations, last year relaxed decades-old regulations on protests. But the committee has still maintained tough restrictions on Olympic participants, denying them the right to make their statements on the Games’ most prominent platforms, such as medal podiums or playing fields.
Peter Reinebo, who was in charge of the Swedish Olympic team in Beijing, gave his support to Mr. van der Poel, who told Mr. Reinebo of his plan during the Games.
“I told him, I will support you until the end because I think it is a great gesture from a great sportsman to also show his true values and the values of human rights,” said Mr Reinebo.
At their impromptu ceremony in Cambridge, Mr van der Poel joked that it was a little easier to give away one gold medal because he had two. “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.
“Maybe when the last political prisoner is released, then you can get him back,” she said, “and you can show him to your grandmother.”