Van der Poel, who has been fiercely critical of the decision to award Beijing the Winter Olympic Games, on Thursday gave his 10,000-meter gold medal to Angela Gui, the daughter of bookseller Gui Minhai, who is serving 10 years in prison in China on charges of illegally providing intelligence abroad.
“I am not the voice of all Olympians, but me and my friends dedicated our lives to strive for excellence within sports, and the Chinese government chose to use our dreams as a political weapon to legitimise their regime,” Van der Poel said in a statement published by Amnesty International.
“I wish for the human rights issues in China to improve and for Gui Minhai to be set free. It’s a lot to ask but it is the only reasonable thing to ask.”
Angela Gui, who lives in the UK, accepted the medal five days after the end of the Games. “He came to see me in Cambridge yesterday, where I accepted his medal on my father’s behalf. I think he’d feel beyond honoured if he knew”, she wrote on Twitter.
Van der Poel was scathing in his criticism of Beijing upon his return to Sweden from the Games.
The Olympics “are a fantastic sporting event where the world and nations meet”, he told Swedish daily Aftonbladet on February 13th. But hosting the Games “is what Hitler did before he invaded Poland and that’s what Russia did before it invaded Ukraine”, he said, referring to the 2014 Sochi Games held just before Russia invaded Crimea. “I think it’s extremely irresponsible to give the Games to a country that so clearly violates human rights like China’s regime does”.
Gui is one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers who disappeared in late 2015 after publishing books critical of the Chinese government. Gui disappeared while on holiday in Thailand in 2015 and resurfaced in China, where he served two years in prison. A few months after his October 2017 release he was again arrested, this time while on a train to Beijing with Swedish diplomats. He was then hit with the 10-year jail term in 2020.
Gui Minhai was born in China but moved to Scandinavia following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, and later became a Swedish citizen. Sweden has repeatedly called for his release. China insists the matter is an internal affair and has been stung by criticism from Sweden. China does not recognise dual citizenship, and Chinese officials claimed he voluntarily reinstated his Chinese citizenship in 2018.
Sweden insists he remains a citizen.
As recently as January this year, Swedish publishers demanded Gui Minhai’s immediate release from prison in China, arguing that China had arrested Gui on “loose grounds”. The allegation that he provided intelligence to a foreign country “seems to have been pulled out of thin air and casts long shadows over China”.
Amnesty called on the international community to increase pressure on China to release its dissidents. “Governments across the world should follow Nils’ lead by stepping up efforts to hold the Chinese government to account — not just over the unjust prosecution of Gui Minhai, but over its treatment of the many others jailed solely for peacefully exercising their rights”, Alkan Akad, a China expert at Amnesty, said.