‘My Heart Aches Watching This’: Athletes Speak Out on Human Rights as Beijing Olympics Come to an End

Had it been up to him, Latvia’s luge coach Martins Rubenis would never have made the trip to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Indeed, he didn’t know if he would even be allowed into China until the very last moment. A two-time Olympic bronze medalist, Rubenis was already known to the Chinese Embassy in Latvia after more than 15 years of advocacy for China’s human rights. In 2006, he staged a hunger strike in front of the site, the same year he won bronze for his country at the Torino Olympics. He was protesting the Chinese regime’s state-sanctioned organ harvesting, which targets imprisoned adherents of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), a spiritual practice Rubenis shares, which has been persecuted in China for decades. “It was not an easy feeling getting on the flight to China and knowing that people like me practicing Falun Dafa are held in detention centers, tortured, and killed just for following principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance,” he told The Epoch Times on Feb. 18 upon returning home from China. Rubenis didn’t wait long after his team finished competing in the Games to open up. Standing steps away from Chinese police officers on Feb. 7, he called the Beijing Games “a huge political theater,” telling Latvian media that it would have been a completely different feeling if the Olympics had taken place anywhere else in the world. “This is a huge ‘spectacle,’ and for me, as an Olympian, my heart aches watching this,” he said, delving into his views about the regime’s “inhumane” organ harvesting and the “oppression of its good, kindhearted people.” It was a daring move on Rubenis’s part, knowing the regime’s retaliatory tendency. Within a day, the president of the Latvian Olympic Committee was invited to the Chinese Embassy in Riga—for the second time since Rubenis’s 2006 hunger strike—”to be ‘educated’ on how to silence the team members for ‘wrong thinking,’” he told The Epoch Times. Luckily for Rubenis, the committee stood up for him, arguing that team members have a right to be vocal on matters that are important to them. Rubenis believes their support helped ensure his coming home smoothly. Bronze medalist Latvia’s Martins Rubenis celebrates during a 2006 Winter Olympics medal ceremony in Turin, Italy, on Feb. 13, 2006, a day after the singles luge final. (Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images) He had taken the risk, he said, because he saw it as his “obligation.” “At that moment, I was not afraid at all,” he said regarding talking to the Latvian broadcasters. “I knew that whatever happens to me in China might help their voices to be heard, and this brutal persecution to end soon,” he said, referring to imprisoned Falun Gong adherents, some of whom were jailed in prison camps just miles away from Olympic venues, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center. “It’s really important for people from free countries and people who understand what’s really going on in China to speak out,” he said in a separate interview with NTD on Feb. 18. “Be it outside China or inside China, the fact doesn’t change.” ‘Do My Job’ and ‘Never Go Back’ But others who hold critical views about the regime have chosen to take extra caution and kept their mouths shut while within the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—a perhaps unsurprising move given the regime’s highly restrictive laws policing speech both online and offline, and with Beijing not-so-subtly hinting about ejecting athletes from the Games for speaking out on human rights. German luge gold medalist Natalie Geisenberger, who was sharply critical of China prior to the Games, said she would make comments only after leaving the country. “You have to be careful when you say what and where you say it,” she told reporters three days before leaving Beijing. Until the last minute, Geisenberger, who took her third luge gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, had been debating whether to skip the Games over the regime’s human rights record and the poor treatment athletes received when training there in the fall. The 34-year-old made up her mind to participate only on Jan. 17, two weeks before the event opened. Her boycott alone “wouldn’t change anything,” she told German broadcaster ZDF after flying back, recounting her sense of powerlessness. She resolved that she would “go there for two weeks, do my job, go home, and never go back to China,” she said. Natalie Geisenberger of Team Germany reacts after winning gold during the Luge Team Relay on day six of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at National Sliding Center in Yanqing, China, on Feb. 10, 2022. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images) Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel, who won two gold medals in Beijing, also had some blistering parting words for the host nation. The decision to award Beijing the Games was “terrible,” he told Swedish newspaper Sportbladet. The Olympic Village “was very nice, the Chinese people I met were absolutely amazing,” he said, before drawing a pa

‘My Heart Aches Watching This’: Athletes Speak Out on Human Rights as Beijing Olympics Come to an End

Had it been up to him, Latvia’s luge coach Martins Rubenis would never have made the trip to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Indeed, he didn’t know if he would even be allowed into China until the very last moment.

A two-time Olympic bronze medalist, Rubenis was already known to the Chinese Embassy in Latvia after more than 15 years of advocacy for China’s human rights.

In 2006, he staged a hunger strike in front of the site, the same year he won bronze for his country at the Torino Olympics. He was protesting the Chinese regime’s state-sanctioned organ harvesting, which targets imprisoned adherents of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), a spiritual practice Rubenis shares, which has been persecuted in China for decades.

“It was not an easy feeling getting on the flight to China and knowing that people like me practicing Falun Dafa are held in detention centers, tortured, and killed just for following principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance,” he told The Epoch Times on Feb. 18 upon returning home from China.

Rubenis didn’t wait long after his team finished competing in the Games to open up.

Standing steps away from Chinese police officers on Feb. 7, he called the Beijing Games “a huge political theater,” telling Latvian media that it would have been a completely different feeling if the Olympics had taken place anywhere else in the world.

“This is a huge ‘spectacle,’ and for me, as an Olympian, my heart aches watching this,” he said, delving into his views about the regime’s “inhumane” organ harvesting and the “oppression of its good, kindhearted people.”

It was a daring move on Rubenis’s part, knowing the regime’s retaliatory tendency. Within a day, the president of the Latvian Olympic Committee was invited to the Chinese Embassy in Riga—for the second time since Rubenis’s 2006 hunger strike—”to be ‘educated’ on how to silence the team members for ‘wrong thinking,’” he told The Epoch Times.

Luckily for Rubenis, the committee stood up for him, arguing that team members have a right to be vocal on matters that are important to them. Rubenis believes their support helped ensure his coming home smoothly.

Martins Rubenis-i
Bronze medalist Latvia’s Martins Rubenis celebrates during a 2006 Winter Olympics medal ceremony in Turin, Italy, on Feb. 13, 2006, a day after the singles luge final. (Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

He had taken the risk, he said, because he saw it as his “obligation.”

“At that moment, I was not afraid at all,” he said regarding talking to the Latvian broadcasters.

“I knew that whatever happens to me in China might help their voices to be heard, and this brutal persecution to end soon,” he said, referring to imprisoned Falun Gong adherents, some of whom were jailed in prison camps just miles away from Olympic venues, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center.

“It’s really important for people from free countries and people who understand what’s really going on in China to speak out,” he said in a separate interview with NTD on Feb. 18. “Be it outside China or inside China, the fact doesn’t change.”

‘Do My Job’ and ‘Never Go Back’

But others who hold critical views about the regime have chosen to take extra caution and kept their mouths shut while within the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—a perhaps unsurprising move given the regime’s highly restrictive laws policing speech both online and offline, and with Beijing not-so-subtly hinting about ejecting athletes from the Games for speaking out on human rights.

German luge gold medalist Natalie Geisenberger, who was sharply critical of China prior to the Games, said she would make comments only after leaving the country.

“You have to be careful when you say what and where you say it,” she told reporters three days before leaving Beijing.

Until the last minute, Geisenberger, who took her third luge gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, had been debating whether to skip the Games over the regime’s human rights record and the poor treatment athletes received when training there in the fall.

The 34-year-old made up her mind to participate only on Jan. 17, two weeks before the event opened.

Her boycott alone “wouldn’t change anything,” she told German broadcaster ZDF after flying back, recounting her sense of powerlessness.

She resolved that she would “go there for two weeks, do my job, go home, and never go back to China,” she said.

Luge - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 6
Natalie Geisenberger of Team Germany reacts after winning gold during the Luge Team Relay on day six of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at National Sliding Center in Yanqing, China, on Feb. 10, 2022. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel, who won two gold medals in Beijing, also had some blistering parting words for the host nation.

The decision to award Beijing the Games was “terrible,” he told Swedish newspaper Sportbladet.

The Olympic Village “was very nice, the Chinese people I met were absolutely amazing,” he said, before drawing a parallel to 1930s Germany. “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.”

Speed Skating - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 7
Gold medalist Nils van der Poel of Team Sweden celebrates during the Men’s 10,000-meter flower ceremony after setting a new World Record time of 12:30.74 on day seven of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Speed Skating Oval in Beijing on Feb. 11, 2022. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Rubenis grew up in the Soviet Union, “where every step, every move, and every person you meet” were carefully choreographed to spread “how communism is great” to foreign visitors.

He watched the Olympic opening ceremony inside the isolated Olympic Village or, in his words, a “civilized detention center” surrounded by security cameras, just to see “what our Chinese Communist Party was trying to show with this event.”

“It was empty,” he said. “It was kind of a show, but a show without meaning.

“Even the Olympic torch flame was so small that you could barely see it, same as the size of the Olympic spirit dying out there.”

Having collaboration of any kind with the CCP, he said, means “supporting the evil and, at the same time, having blood on the hands.”

“Keep away from that sinking ship. Because when it sinks, everybody who has connection with that will be drawn down,” he said.

“Stay away from the CCP, and it will die on its own.”

David Zhang contributed to this report. 


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Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights. Contact Eva at [email protected]