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Uyghur Chinese Olympian ‘Vanishes’ After Carrying Torch at Beijing Olympics and Competing in Cross-Country Skiing

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: February 8, 2022
BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 04: Chinese torchbearer athletes Dinigeer Yilamujian and Zhao Jiawen hold the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the National Stadium on February 04, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

An ethnic Uyghur Olympic skier representing China has reportedly “disappeared” after carrying the Olympic torch for the host nation during its opening ceremony on Feb. 4.

Dinigeer Yilamujiang, became an overnight sensation after much anticipation for her competitive debut resulted in a lackluster 43rd place finish during the cross-country skiathon.

The 20-year-old — whose name is a Mandarin version of its Uyghur original Dilnigar Ilhamjan — is an athlete from the Altay Prefecture in northern Xinjiang, the region home to the Uyghur people. The ethnic minority has been the subject of much scrutiny after accounts of forced sterilizations, genocide and other atrocities were reported.

In addition, the Chinese regime has been accused of widespread human rights violations targeting not just Uyghurs, but also Chinese Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual practice – many of whom have been subjected to torture, abuse and imprisonment for decades.

According to findings from the U.N., over one million Uyghur Muslims remain jailed in concentration camps across remote parts of western China. There are a total of around 12 million Uyghurs living in China.

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The decision to pair Yilamujiang with Zhao Jiawen for the opening ceremony was interpreted by many as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s way of sending a “political message” to concerned human rights groups at home and abroad. 

Zhao, an alpine skier from Shanghai, is Han Chinese, the ethnic group that makes up 90 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people. 

Prior to her race on Saturday (Feb. 5), Yilamujiang was touted as a local celebrity and a symbol of “national unity” after state-run media featured her in pictures and videos alongside her family in Xinjiang. 

After a disappointing performance however, Yilamujiang slipped away with three other Chinese athletes through a “mixed zone” – an area which allows athletes to pass through without having to answer questions from reporters. 

ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA – FEBRUARY 08: Dinigeer Yilamujiang of Team China competes during the Women’s Cross-Country Sprint Free Qualification on Day 4 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at The National Cross-Country Skiing Centre on February 08, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Photo by Maddie Meyer via Getty Images)

Her Olympic debut has barely been mentioned in Chinese media since. 

However, an interview featuring the young athlete had “reportedly been taped prior to her race” and was released on China’s state run broadcaster today.

“That moment will encourage me every day for the rest of my life,” she told Xinhua news. “I was so excited when I found out we were going to place the torch. It’s a huge honor for me!”

Although Yilamujiang declined to speak to the media after her race, during the previously taped interview, she said, “Since the country gave me such an important mission, I had to fulfill it.” 

In a video posted by Communist Party-run Xinjiang Daily, Yilamujiang’s mother also praised Beijing for allowing her daughter to represent the country. “Thanks to the country for giving my daughter such an important mission,” she said in the video. 

Yilamujiang added that the Chinese regime “has done everything it can for me” and that it was her duty to “train hard and bring glory to the country.”

The interview also highlighted her childhood talent encouraged by her father, who is also a decorated skier and athlete.

‘Highly controlled interviews’ reminiscent of propaganda exercises 

Yilamujiang’s apparent disappearance is reminiscent of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player who created a stir across social media and went missing late last year for over two weeks. Peng alleged in a lengthy Weibo post (China’s equivalent of Twitter) that she had been forced into sexual relations with former top official Zhang Gaoli.

BEIJING, CHINA – FEBRUARY 08: Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai looks on during the Women’s Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 4 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 08, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Richard Heathcote via Getty Images)

While speaking to France’s L’Equipe newspaper in a recent interview, Peng said there were “enormous misunderstandings” in regards to her post about Zhang and said she had never been a victim of sexual abuse. 

“I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault,” the newspaper quoted Peng as saying. “My private life should not be brought up in sports or politics.” 

According to observers at the scene, Peng’s interview was conducted under “highly controlled circumstances.” Stephen McDonell, a BBC reporter covering the Beijing Olympics, compared it to a propaganda exercise, adding that it “left more questions than answers.”

This isn’t the first time Peng recanted her allegations against Zhang, with many expressing concern as to whether she is being coerced into retracting her previous accusations against one of China’s most powerful political figures.

Whistleblowers have been known to “disappear” in the country after going public with any allegations that could tarnish the CCP’s image or undermine its authoritarian rule.