Olympic Athletes Have Their Say
Some Speak Out On Global Issues

By Liz Clarke and Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

CHICAGO, April 14 -- As she searches her conscience on the eve of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing Olympic hopeful Patricia Miranda, a wrestler from Manteca, Calif., has been reflecting on the two fists that were famously raised in a Black Power salute atop the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Gymnast David Durante, by contrast, is focused solely on his training, convinced that the Olympic stage is no place for political statements, however well intentioned.

Activists worldwide have seized on the symbol of the Olympic torch wending its way around the globe in recent weeks to protest the range of issues they feel makes China an unsuitable host, including the crisis in Darfur, China's policy toward Tibet and a clamp-down on dissidents within its own borders.

But the voices of American athletes had not been heard to a great extent until Monday, when scores of prospective Olympians gathered here and found the assembled media as eager to evaluate their savvy on Chinese politics and freedom of expression as their readiness for the summer's competition.

The athletes' responses -- whether regarding their grasp of the issues in Sudan and Tibet or their opinions on whether politics and sports should be intermingled -- were as varied as the skills of the Olympians themselves. What was clear, however, was that the controversy surrounding the Beijing Games is something all athletes will be forced to grapple with from now until Closing Ceremonies on Aug. 24. The issues, in large part, will shape the success of these Olympics, which has been billed since it was awarded in 2001 as China's "coming-out party" to the world.

Some athletes preferred not to speak, saying they weren't sufficiently informed. Others said they were deeply troubled by certain political issues but convinced the Olympics wasn't the proper forum to debate them. Still others, including Miranda, a Yale-trained lawyer, spoke with passion about wanting to make a constructive, powerful statement in China.

"I support that!" Miranda said, raising her fist just as runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in a salute to black power in 1968. "I know they got kicked out [of the Olympics], but I thought it was important. Their message reverberated. . . . Every athlete has to figure out, 'Where are my boundaries?' "

The Beijing-bound Olympians are hardly the first to wrestle with the blurred line between politics and sports. The Olympic Games has a rich history as a backdrop for propaganda and protest, dating from 1908, when Irish athletes skipped the London Games over issues of independence.

More than 60 countries joined a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan -- an action that led to no appreciable change. "The overriding feeling among the athletes is disappointment and confusion to this day," said Tom Caraccioli, who interviewed 18 U.S. athletes who missed the 1980 Games for a book, co-written with his brother Jerry, "Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games."

The Soviet Union countered by boycotting the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

American speedskater Joey Cheek was lauded for using his moment of Olympic glory to help the children of Darfur at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. Moments after winning gold, Cheek announced he was donating his $40,000 bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee to Right To Play, a group that provides sporting equipment to children in the region's refugee camps. Cheek challenged other Olympians to do the same and was honored as the USOC's sportsman of the year.

Now a student at Princeton, Cheek, 28, has joined with UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner to form Team Darfur, a coalition of athletes trying to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis there. But his political activism hasn't been as well received as his charitable work.

"When I'm giving money to help kids play games, people said: 'That's great! You're a good guy!' " Cheek said. "But when I started talking about the situation that put those children in refugee camps -- war-torn governments that burn villages to the ground, militia that are unchecked -- suddenly the political implications are much greater and you come under greater scrutiny."

Team Darfur uses Facebook to contact Olympians past and present about its cause.

U.S. softball player Jessica Mendoza is among those who joined. On Monday, she listed a handful of the atrocities that have occurred in the Darfur region of Sudan. "As athletes, we can be great advocates for this awareness," she said. However, she and teammate Jennie Finch, also a member of Team Darfur, don't plan to discuss Darfur at the Games.

China is a major trading partner of Sudan, whose government the Bush administration accuses of waging genocide in Darfur.

"The Olympics is about the Olympics and it's a celebration," Finch said. "Let's set politics and religion aside, and really enjoy the Olympics and what the Olympics are all about."

Durante, the gymnast, started an environmentally conscious group at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this year but said he won't use the Olympics to publicize that cause or any other.

"Even with the green issues, I'm not going to use the Olympics as a platform for any issues," Durante said. "I don't feel my place as an athlete is to voice my opinion one way or another about political issues at the Games."

The Olympic Charter bans political demonstrations of any sort at the Olympic Games, but International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said last week that athletes were free to express their opinions as long as they did not use the Olympics as a platform for propaganda or demonstrations.

Several athletes said the USOC has similarly encouraged them to speak out on any topic, though the organization has also reminded them of their responsibility to be respectful of their Chinese hosts.

Still, all U.S. athletes are aware that funding for their sports comes from corporate sponsors. According to Cheek, that carries subtle constraints of its own.

"The USOC has great incentive not to upset these global companies -- athletes as well," Cheek said. "This is what pays for our training. And that brings great pressure not to rock the boat too much."

Gymnast Alicia Sacramone said her teammates huddled before meeting with reporters Monday and agreed not to discuss the politics surrounding the Beijing Games.

"We don't really like controversy," Sacramone said. "If I said something wrong -- even by accident, not intentionally -- we just don't need that extra drama."

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