My New Olympic Dream
I went from the ice in Turin to a dusty refugee camp. Now I hope my fellow athletes will speak out for Darfur in Beijing.

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.


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.

I became a state, then a regional, and finally a national champion on in-line skates all before I was 15, but in 1994 I watched the Winter Olympics and saw speed skating for the first time. And I knew that was what I wanted to do. I moved to Canada from my native North Carolina a month after my 16th birthday to become a speed skater. I found that I loved the feeling of racing on ice even more than on wheels. I climbed the ranks in the United States as a junior, then as a senior and eventually became a world champion. In 2002, at 21, I competed in the Salt Lake City Olympics and won my first medal -- a bronze.

The life of an Olympic athlete is a bit strange. We spend countless hours toiling for years for almost no money in the hope of being a hundredth of a second better than our competition in a sport that often no one watches except once every four years during this great festival. But aside from the medal count and the endless patriotism that bombards every Olympic viewer, there is an incredible community within the Olympic Village. Athletes from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas come together and compete for the same prize. And when our events are over, we come back to the Olympic Village, and we sit down and eat together.

This community was the defining aspect of my Olympic experience, and it's what led me, ultimately, to Darfur. I could sit with an athlete from another land, and even though we had very different backgrounds, we had the Olympic experience in common. Just to earn my place in that Olympic Village cafeteria, I'd spent years competing around the world. During those travels, I began to see that it wasn't just athletes that I had this fellowship with but people in every nation. I met great friends in Europe who would invite me into their homes and where we would eventually realize that both of our grandfathers had fought in World War II -- against each other. I made friends from China who had also left their homes at an early age to begin training, and even though we barely understood each other, no one in the world smiled bigger at me when we would bump into each other. My other constant companion in that world travel was the international news coverage of atrocities that I didn't hear much about on the news at home.

It might seem funny that a speed skater from North Carolina would focus on what was then a somewhat obscure crisis in Africa, but it all came back to my Olympic views. Ultimately, I feel no different than a person born in any other area of the world, except perhaps a bit luckier. And if people were gunning down my family, I would certainly want the world to help. So that's what I tried to do.

After the Olympics in Turin, I began traveling the world again -- not to compete or train, but to talk with people about having won. I also spoke at many Darfur rallies, including one in Washington in the spring of 2006, sharing the bill with Elie Wiesel and George Clooney. Somehow, I had gotten from sprinting at record speed around an ice rink in tights to sharing a stage with a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor and an Academy Award winner. But the more I learned about the conflict, the more confident I became about speaking out -- and the more urgency I felt.

Seven months after the Washington rally, I was on a stage in New York, essentially back where I'd started. The same "Save Darfur" posters were draped on the podium. The same heartbreaking statistics were being repeated over a bad sound system to a large crowd. But people were still dying by the scores, and despite the efforts of the activist community, the international community was not really doing anything.

Star power isn't fixing anything in Darfur yet, either. Although celebrities can raise awareness about the conflict, ultimately only government officials can affect the situation on the ground. I saw that when I traveled with Clooney, actor Don Cheadle, Kenyan distance runner Tegla Loroupe and others as part of a delegation to Egypt and China in December 2006. The U.N. Security Council had passed a resolution that year calling for peacekeeping forces to protect civilians in Darfur, but Sudan was able to stall and eventually ignore it.

In Beijing, we spoke with government and business leaders: two movie stars, a speed skater, a distance runner and some activists facing people we thought had the power to really help. We think this is not right, we said gently, seeking to engage the Chinese in a positive way. Our message: We hope that, if nothing else, you will stop obstructing U.N. efforts to install robust international protection in Darfur. They met with us. They said thank you for coming. They said they think this is an internal issue in Africa, and that it's not really our business to fix it or discuss it. Then they invited us to tour the Olympic venues in progress, hoping to snap a few photos of smiling movie stars in front of the cranes and half-finished stadium.

I left feeling very frustrated.

I channeled some of that frustration into the organization I started last year with Brad Greiner, a water polo player, called Team Darfur. We're trying to recruit athletes who will use their time in the spotlight to help save lives in Darfur and show the world that these people still desperately need our help. So far, nearly 350 athletes from 60 countries have signed on with Team Darfur. And quite a few of those athletes will be in Beijing in August, including gymnasts from Europe, basketball players from Africa, swimmers from the Caribbean and softball players from North America.

For some, though, joining this particular team is a risk, one they fear could jeopardize their spot on the Olympic team. I recently spoke with a Beijing-bound swimmer who is committed to the Darfur cause. He attended a symbolic torch relay on behalf of victims of Sudan's genocidal regime and has spoken to international reporters about the issue. But he wants to be sure that whatever he says now won't compromise his opportunity to compete in Beijing -- not just because he has spent his whole life training for his Olympic moment, but because he realizes that his status as an Olympian will give him a wider platform to raise awareness.

That has certainly been my experience. Had I not gone to Turin, the local paper might have said, "Hometown Boy Forgoes Olympics for Cause." But that's it. The most important -- and most effective -- means of addressing China's economic interdependence with Sudan is to go to Beijing, compete and speak out.

But the question of how to speak out is a complicated one.

For one thing, I understand how much Beijing's organizers have at stake in ensuring a successful event. I also understand the pride that the Chinese take in hosting the event: I remember how much it meant to me that my first Olympics were held in the United States in the months following Sept. 11, 2001.

For another, the International Olympic Committee has all kinds of rules and restrictions. Rule 51.3 of the Olympic Charter prohibits demonstrations of "political, religious or racial propaganda" at the official venues. Earlier this month, the rules got even more confusing. In a letter sent to national Olympic committees, the IOC said that prohibited conduct could include written or oral statements. The Olympics, the letter stated, are not a stage for "political statements about issues such as armed conflicts, regional differences, religious disputes, and many others."

Right now, this one small section of the Olympic charter is what people are focusing on, trying to determine whether it's possible to both speak one's mind and represent one's country. But the entire Olympic Charter is full of soaring rhetoric about elevating humanity through sport. I'm astounded by how often this rule is used not to promote that goal, but to stifle it.

So I recommend reading rule 51.3 along with a different bureaucratic agenda item. This one is from the U.N. General Assembly: a resolution, passed last fall, urging its members to observe what's known as the "Olympic truce" during the Olympics in August and the Paralympics in September. The truce is an effort to "use sport as an instrument to promote peace," a modern version of what the Greeks called "Ekecheiria" and observed during ancient Olympiads. The goal today is to use a short window this summer as one way to temporarily halt conflicts -- a step toward some more permanent kind of reconciliation.

For my fellow athletes who will gather to compete at the gleaming new venues China will unveil: Your efforts might give you the chance to improve the lives of millions. I hope that goal will resonate for everyone stepping to a microphone after a big win this summer.

Joey Cheek, a member of the 2002 and 2006 U.S. Olympic speed skating teams, is co-founder of Team Darfur and a student at Princeton University.

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