A Swedish gold medallist has said it was “extremely irresponsible” to hold the Winter Olympics in China because of the government’s human rights record.
Nils van der Poel, a 25-year-old speedskater, made the comments after returning home from the Beijing event, where officials have been at pains to keep politics and protest out despite diplomatic boycotts.
Van der Poel told Sportbladet he had “a very nice experience behind the scenes”, but that the decision to give Beijing the Games was “terrible”.
“The Olympic Village was very nice, the Chinese people I met were absolutely amazing,” he said. “The Olympics is a lot, it’s a fantastic sporting event where you unite the world and nations meet. But so did Hitler before invading Poland, and so did Russia before invading Ukraine.
“I think it is extremely irresponsible to give it to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese regime is doing.”
Governments including the US have accused China’s government of conducting a genocide in Xinjiang, through its long campaign of forced assimilation against ethnic minorities, including Muslim Uyghurs. An estimated 1 million people have been detained in mass detention and re-education centres, and the general population has been subjected to acts of religious and cultural suppression, alleged forced labour, and enforced birth control.
Several human rights and legal groups have said the actions amount to crimes against humanity. Beijing denies all accusations of human rights abuses, and says its policies are part of anti-terrorism efforts and poverty alleviation programmes.
Rights groups had called for widespread boycotts of the Winter Olympics by governments and sponsors. Several nations including the US, UK and Australia staged a diplomatic boycott of the event, while there has been significant focus on athletes’ ability to protest.
Human rights advocates had warned athletes about conducting any activism, including making statements, while in Beijing for the Games. The US Nordic skier and former Olympian Noah Hoffman said athletes had a powerful platform, but advised them to stay silent in Beijing. He said: “They can speak out when they get back.”
Acts of protest at the Games are generally against the rules set by the International Olympic Committee, which also warned athletes not to protest at the Tokyo summer Games, or face potential punishment.
However, there are mounting concerns over the increasing intolerance of protest, dissent or criticism in or against China. Prior to it starting, a Beijing official warned any athlete behaviour that is against the Olympic spirit or Chinese rules or laws would be subject to “certain punishment”.
China’s government and Olympic officials have insisted the Games should be free from politics, but when asked at a press conference on Tuesday about human rights issues, committee spokesperson Yan Jiarong dismissed human rights violations among the Uyghur Muslim population as “lies” and insisted Taiwan was part of China.
• This article was amended on 18 February 2022. Nils van der Poel is Swedish, not Swiss as an earlier version said.