Sweden’s double Olympic gold medalist Nils van der Poel (25) thinks it is unwise of him to criticize the “situation” in China – which warns that the athletes’ criticism of the regime can be punished.
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– I do not think it would be particularly wise of me to criticize the regime that I am about to move into, if I want to live a long and fruitful life, he says in an interview with Aftonbladet.
Freedom of expression around the forthcoming Games in China has been put on the agenda after Yang Shu, deputy director of foreign relations at the Beijing Organizing Committee, stated that “dedicated ministries” would investigate practitioners’ statements during the Games.
– All statements that are in line with the Olympic spirit will be protected. All statements that go against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, can be punished, he said at a press conference on Tuesday, according to the Guardian.
The statements have provoked strong reactions in the Olympic community. Australian Sports Minister Richard Colbeck calls it “very worrying” and emphasizes athletes’ freedom to express political opinions on social media and in interviews.
That freedom does not apply in practice, according to the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, which warns practitioners against speaking out in an “Orwell-like state”. This means that all statements and actions are closely monitored and assessed by the repressive authorities.
Waiting a bit
Nils van der Poel took the skating world by storm a year ago when he won World Cup gold in the 5000 meters and 10,000 meters in Heerenveen. He is also the owner of the world record for the distances. Before the Beijing Olympics 4.-20. February he is the clear favorite to win the gold medal in the 5000 meters on February 6 and the 10,000 meters on February 11.
– He gets a lot of attention. He is a very special person, says Tomas Gustafson, Sweden’s previous Olympic gold medalist in skating 34 years ago, when asked how much attention Nils van der Poel is now being subjected to in Sweden.
The interview with Aftonbladet, published Tuesday, begins with «Nils van der Poel feels fear for the regime in China. Therefore, he will not, as it is expressed, comment on the situation in China until a month later – when he returns home from China.
– I can talk about it then. I do it very gladly, but not in advance. Because I think it’s very important that we talk about it. Now I do not think it is particularly wise if I want to get out of there. I have a sufficiently basic understanding that what is going on is morally wrong, says Nils van der Poel to the Swedish newspaper.
He also says that it is a great sporting disappointment that the Olympic competitions in China will take place without spectators in the stands. Nils van der Poel adds, however, that he is happy that the Olympics will be held at all.
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Norway: Full freedom of expression
Hallgeir Engebråten won the bronze medal in the 5000 meters at the European Championships in January. He is the only Norwegian challenger to the Swede in the shortest long distance.
Confronted with Nils van der Poel’s time-bound self-imposed muzzle, the above statements, says Hallgeir Engebråten (22) that he has put too little into it, and that he therefore finds it difficult to express himself.
– I have too little bearing. We have all heard the rumors and speculations. I think we will be well received. We travel there first and foremost to go ice skating, says Hallgeir Engebråten.
He says that the national ice skating team before the European Championships, during a training session in Hamar, was told what awaits them in China by the Olympic Summit’s press attachment for ice skating in the Olympics.
– It is up to us what we want to say about, says Hallgeir Engebråten.
Halvor Lea is responsible for communications and media at Olympiatoppen, which is responsible for Norway’s Olympic squad consisting of 81 athletes in China.
He says that they and the leaders of the practitioners in various forums are informed about politics, geography and human rights in China. Lea emphasizes that “everyone” is free to express themselves, and that the basis for this can be found in the so-called charter of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
– But we are also concerned with supporting those who do not want to speak out. In terms of sportsmanship, it also has to do with timing for when one should speak out. What is the best “input” to perform best, says Halvor Lea.