BEIJING (Reuters) – A ski jumper at the Winter Olympics was hailed by advocates for Uyghurs on Sunday after displaying what they said was the flag of the independence movement of East Turkestan, a group Beijing says threatens the stability of its Xinjiang region.
Turkey’s Fatih Arda Ipcioglu on Saturday competed in light blue-coloured skis with a white crescent and white star on them. His native Turkish flag is almost identical, but features a red background.
It was not clear whether or not the athlete had been making a political statement, or was an unwitting hero to some due to the colour of his skis.
On Sunday, Ipcioglu used plain blue skis without the flag, and would not discuss the issue when asked by Reuters. “I don’t want to answer those questions,” he said.
“I changed my skis, these are my competition skis… I try my best and we will see. I showed my jump under the Turkish flag.
“I can just speak about the Turkish flag,” he said, when asked if the skis on Saturday had featured the Turkish flag or an East Turkestan flag.
When asked if he had been making a political statement, the athlete said: “Like I said, I am a sportsman, I just do my job. The other things I don’t care about, it’s not my job. I don’t want to answer those questions.”
The display of any political symbol or unofficial flag is strictly forbidden at the Olympics, and the Turkish team later denied any deliberate flouting of the rules.
“This was not a political statement. As you may know, the official Turkish flag includes a white crescent and a star on it,” Turkey’s Olympic Committee told Reuters.
“However, in order to avoid any confusion, only the National Olympic Committee of Turkey emblem (will be) used on our athlete’s skis for the remainder of the Games.”
Nonetheless, Uyghur advocates and sympathisers on social media were quick to jump on the issue.
“The first Turk to qualify in ski jumping, Fatih Arda Ipcioglu competed with the East Turkestan flag on his helmet and skis, protesting the Chinese persecution in China,” said Twitter user Bulent Aksoy. “Congratulations Fatih Arda.”
Another, Mustafa Karadeniz, said “Fatih Arda Ipcioglu participated in the competitions with the flag of East Turkestan in the heart of China. Thank you my brave brother.”
China’s Xinjiang region is home to a Muslim Uyghur minority. Hundreds of protesters from China’s Muslim Uyghur community had rallied in Turkey’s Istanbul on Friday to call for a boycott of the Beijing Games and to urge participants to speak out against China’s treatment of the ethnic minority.
Some 50,000 Uyghurs are estimated to live in Turkey, the largest Uyghur diaspora outside Central Asia. Turks have close ethnic, religious and linguistic ties to the Uyghurs.
U.N. experts and rights groups estimate more than a million people, mainly from the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in forced labour camps in Xinjiang since 2016.
After initially denying such camps existed, China has since said they are vocational centres and are designed to combat extremism. It denies all accusations of human rights abuses.
(Editing by Hugh Lawson)