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My New Olympic Dream

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By Joey Cheek
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Editor's Note

Aug. 6, 2008: The Chinese government this week revoked the visa of American speedskater and 2006 Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek, effectively barring him from the games. In an Outlook essay earlier this year, Cheek wrote about why he is so outspoken about the Darfur genocide.

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I'd actually imagined what it would be like, which is terrible. You're never supposed to plan on winning.

But there I was, the gold medalist in the 500-meter speed skating event at the 2006 winter Olympics in Turin. And with the win came the right to 10 minutes, give or take, at a microphone in front of 60-odd cameras, tape recorders and sports reporters who were waiting to shout in my face: "How does it feel to win?" (It's a pretty short answer, actually: "Good.")

Except, I wanted to talk about something different. "I know you guys all want to do sweet stories about Hallmark and chocolates and butterflies and all that," I said, stepping to the microphone. "But I have a pretty unique experience and a pretty unique opportunity here. So I'm going to take advantage of it while I can."

And then I announced that I was going to donate my winnings from the U.S. Olympic Committee -- $25,000 for that 500-meter victory and another $15,000 when I won the silver in the 1,000 meters a few days later -- to Darfurian refugees in Chad. Though I was just beginning to learn about the conflict in Darfur in February 2006, I knew that more than 60,000 children from Darfur had been displaced in the course of nearly three years of violence and that my donation to the Right to Play Foundation might help send them some small relief.

I was also just beginning to learn what it meant to be engaged with what's happening in Darfur -- a deliberate campaign of atrocities that the U.S. government has called a genocide, launched by the regime in Khartoum and an allied militia known as the Janjaweed -- and what it means to be on an international stage as an Olympian. Now, more than two years after I won my medals in Turin, I'm watching those issues collide as the world prepares for the Olympics in Beijing.

I'm not competing this summer, but I am urging others to think about Darfur and about China's relationship with Sudan. China buys much of Sudan's annual oil output and sells arms to Sudan, helping prop up the government in Khartoum. China is also the genocidal regime's key defender at the United Nations, helping weaken Security Council resolutions that might stem the violence.

I sincerely hope that the newest Olympic champions not only show graciousness toward their Chinese hosts, but also issue a stern call for action in Darfur. With its significant ties to Sudan, China is one of the countries in the world best positioned to do more to stop the killing in Darfur, and it is the responsibility of athletes competing there this summer to say that -- respectfully yet forcefully -- even as they focus on their own athletic accomplishments.

But first of all: Who am I to be teaching about Darfur?

Well, I'm an Olympian. That term, for me, encapsulates both what I achieved on the ice and the person I still seek to become. It means everything to me to have skated as well as I did, but over the years, I have come to believe that being an Olympian means more than just being a great athlete.

When I was about 9 years old, I put on my first pair of skates. A neighbor who was on our local in-line speed skating team -- yes, they exist -- and I persuaded my mom to let my brother and me join the team. For $2 a week, I could skate with the team during practice and then during the public session afterward. When I describe to people what it felt like to start racing, I put it this way: It's like what God meant for me to do. Now I don't mean that I was a phenom; far from it, in fact. But I was always good enough that I could envision myself being the best, and when I worked harder than anyone else, I was.

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