Rediscovering the Olympic Ideal

Joey Cheek, left, was inspired by the performance and charity of Norway's Johann Olav Koss, who won three gold medals in the 1994 Winter Games.
Joey Cheek, left, was inspired by the performance and charity of Norway's Johann Olav Koss, who won three gold medals in the 1994 Winter Games. (By Jasper Juinen -- Associated Press)
By Mike Wise
Monday, February 27, 2006

TURIN, Italy -- Sunday was the last night of the Games, the night to say goodbye to Bode and Lindsey, to Kimmie and Shani, to Chad and Chad's ego. It was the last night of the Games, and it's possible we got it all wrong.

The time wasted on a reckless downhill skier who said winning medals meant nothing to him. A sandbox feud between twenty-something speedskaters, spiraling into a grade-school scrap behind the library. Young adults -- most of whom have no clue how influential their words can be -- analyzed like middle-aged grownups.

All these wrong stories made us walk right past the one that mattered:

The story of Joey and Johann.

If you want grandiose statements from the people trying too hard to be counterculture heroes -- the same people who ultimately end up looking like mainstream losers -- turn the page. If you came looking for one-liners about Bode Miller bottoming out or Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogging before her race was over, move on.

This is not about them. This is about the hope and change Olympic heroes can bring long after the Games.

There was a news conference in a small room last week involving a U.S. gold medalist whose competitions were finished at the Turin Games and a 37-year-old Norwegian who last won a gold medal in 1994. The room began to fill. Joey Cheek, who carried the flag for the United States in Sunday night's Closing Ceremonies, and Johann Olav Koss took the dais. They began talking about what the Olympics have meant to them.

"The Olympics, in general, and athletics is a very selfish pursuit," Cheek said. "I wake up every morning and as I get ready for the day ask myself how can I focus all my energies on what I can do so I can be the best in the world.

"After years of this and years of people sacrificing so I can be the best in the world, I feel that it is imperative for myself and also for anyone else who's able to reach a pinnacle of their career -- or whatever they're striving for -- to reach out a hand and help somebody else."

Then Koss grabbed the microphone:

"For me, the Olympics, it's about spirit. It's absolutely inspirational. And I totally believe that the Olympics are what it was meant to be when Coubertin was mentioning it," he said of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games. "It's for peace, it's for education, it's for health."

He went on: "When you start defining the Olympic spirit, it is actually to reach everybody in this world, it is to inspire everybody to be better people. It's how to understand how to win, but also to understand how to lose. It's to understand how to have respect for one another. It's to understand how to set goals. It's to understand how to live a good life."

This is a story of Koss, the face of the Lillehammer Games, refusing to be cast as a disposable hero, good once every four years. And it is a story of Cheek, his young American protege, an altruistic bright light from Greensboro, N.C., his perspective and maturity belying his 26 years.

In 1996, Koss took over a foundation called Right to Play, an athlete-driven international humanitarian organization that uses sport and play as a tool for development of children and youth in the most disadvantaged areas of the world. Koss knew he had to act after a 1993 visit to Eritrea, where he was profoundly moved by the plight of the children.

He donated his prize money from his speedskating victory in the 1,500 meters in Lillehammer to Olympic Aid, the forerunner of Right to Play. He challenged other athletes to do the same.

Twelve years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations later, Joey Cheek came to meet Johann Olav Koss in the athletes' village before the Games began.

"I want to do something," he told Koss.

"We did not specifically talk about his donation," Koss recalled of that day in the village. "He said he was going to do something big."

Cheek was the speedskater only his mother had heard of before he won the 500. He was not Shani Davis or Chad Hedrick, sniping on the same podium. No, Joey Cheek used his time before the cameras for others.

The night he won, Cheek sat down and told the world's media that he understands how the process works. He only has one, fleeting moment in the spotlight, and this what he will use it for: saving African children.

He pledged the entire $25,000 the U.S. Olympic Committee awards its gold medalists to Right to Play, saying he wanted it to be earmarked for the Darfur region of Sudan. Another $15,000 was donated after Cheek won silver in the 1,000. Someone asked, "Why Africa?"

In his travels overseas as a champion speedskater, Cheek said he began watching CNN Europe, which he said aggressively covered the genocide in the Darfur region long before American television.

"The Sudanese government had basically sponsored militias to slaughter an ethnic minority," he said. A million had been displaced from their homes and, Cheek said, "nearest estimate, over 180,000 people killed."

"I found it odd that it was such a big story overseas and I came home and so rarely did I see any coverage," Cheek said. "If anything it was a little crawler across the bottom. Our state department declared genocide. Genocide. That word conjures up 'Holocaust.' A hundred thousand people killed by a government, and no one even knew about it."

In the days after Cheek's uncommon generosity, something incredible happened. More people wanted to give.

Koss had touched him and he had touched others. And the donations kept coming.

As of Sunday, $392,996 had been donated in matching contributions to Cheek's original $40,000, including $45,000 from the USOC.

Koss's jaw dropped when he heard of Cheek's charity that night. "When I got to hear the announcement, I was shocked, actually," he said. "I had not expected it to be so dramatic and so fantastic at the time of the press conference."

Cheek was asked again what the Olympics meant to him:

"It becomes very easy when you start having to sell stories and sell the Games like this prepackaged thing, it becomes very easy to make it a mockery of itself, mockery of what the ideals are," he said. "I look at sport and competition as something that has been personally enormously beneficial to me. It's helped me create life skills.

"And if we carry ourselves with grace and dignity and try our best -- even when we fall on our faces, as will happen sometimes -- then I think people will see that. And that will be the message of sport and the Olympics."

Twelve years after Johann Olav Koss became a living example of what the Games can produce at their best, Joey Cheek carried the American flag into Turin's Olympic Stadium.

On the last night of the Games, that seemed good and right.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company