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Joey Cheek Keeps On Fighting for Darfur

timv's picture

Latest news on Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek: Having collected 42,000 signatures on petitions calling for China, Sudan's largest international trading partner, to help in putting an end to the genocide taking place in Darfur, he personally delivered the petitions on July 25th to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Seattle columnist Art Thiel writes about "Joey Cheek, one-man haz-mat unit," an antidote to "the fallout from Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, the Tour de France and NBA referee Tim Donaghy." He recounts the episode:

Only Cheek was allowed to enter. He was politely received, his thick binders taken, his plea heard to take Chinese and American athletes to tour the devastated region of Sudan, for which China is a large, influential trading partner.

Aside from some international media attention, the gesture has yet to produce anything. But quick results are rare in diplomacy. Just as with world-class sports.

"I'm glad that no one ever told me how hard it would be to win a gold medal," he said. "It's the same thing here. Being an athlete helps you deal with goals that seem far away."

In entering the embassy, Cheek, from Greensboro, N.C., also crossed a more figurative threshold. He became that rare athlete engaged publicly in political controversy.

"Since that point, my interviews and experiences have had a different tone," he said by phone late last week from the capital. "It's not that there's been disagreements; it's just that the issue is very much about the will of nations.

"It's not just the friendly waters of sports."

The Oxford Press reports further on the encounter:

"My name is Joey Cheek," he told the voice on the other side. "I am on the U.S. Olympic team. And I am here to deliver petitions that we have collected over the last week imploring China to continue to act strongly to protect the civilians in Darfur."

Cheek, holding binders with 47,000 [according to this version --Tim] signatures collected by the Save Darfur Coalition, was told he could enter but coalition members could not. So Cheek waited. And waited. During the next half-hour, coalition members said Cheek should leave the binders on the doorstep. But Cheek didn't make Time's Most Influential People list by taking his activist role lightly, so he dug in as if on the starting line for the 500-meter final.

"You kind of realize that these are diplomatic games, right?" Cheek said a few days ago. "So if we make you stand outside, we'll put you in your place."

After 35 minutes, the doors opened, and both sides could declare victory.

"I actually was thinking I'd probably be standing there a lot longer," Cheek said.

I hadn't seen many reports on calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, but I'm not that surprised that there would be some. And I like Joey's response to them:

"Had I boycotted, the local newspaper would have had some headline, 'Local boy forgoes Olympics for cause,' or something like that," Cheek said. "But because I went and I won, then I had the chance to speak on Darfur and raise money for Right to Play. ... All of a sudden, hundreds of millions of people across the country heard my story."

The New York Daily News covered the story as well, writing:

For many athletes, doing good means donating an old jersey to charity. But American speed skater Joey Cheek, the gold medalist in the 500 meters at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, says his life became much richer once he dedicated himself to helping the people of Darfur.

"Being an athlete is a great life, but it is also a selfish life," says Cheek, who has testified before Congress about Darfur and traveled to Chad to see conditions in refugee camps first-hand. "You wake up every morning thinking 'What am I going to do today to make myself better?' You are surrounded by people who are dedicated to helping you do the same thing. But it's not like I was curing cancer. I was skating in circles."

He also comments in that report that some athletes aren't unaware of the social costs that can come along with the Olympic games. He cites an estimate from the Swiss-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions that 1.5 million people in Beijing have lost their homes to make room for the games, following 720,000 displaced for the 1988 Seoul Games, along with $9 billion in debt that Athens has had to bear from the 2004 Olympics.

"We talk about the pros and cons of the games, and I think there is still something to be said about using sports to transcend boundaries," Cheek says. "We wouldn't be able to talk to bring up Darfur with China without the Olympics."

Joey Cheek's foundation, Where Will We Be?, can be found online at wherewillwebe.org.


eebee's picture

A Wise and Honorable Speed Skater!

I loved what Joey Cheek said in the excerpt Timv included, about the athletic life being a selfish one, and skating around in circles. How wonderful it is to have a world champion athlete you can respect.

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