By Liz Clarke and Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 6 -- The Chinese government on Tuesday revoked the visa of 2006 Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek, effectively barring the speedskating champion and social activist from attending the 2008 Beijing Games.
Cheek is co-founder of Team Darfur, an organization composed of athletes attempting to draw attention to human rights violations in Darfur. China is a major customer of the oil produced in the war-torn region of Sudan.
Cheek said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that he received a call shortly after 5 p.m. (Eastern time) from someone either from the Chinese embassy or consulate who informed him that his visa had been revoked.
"I asked for a reason, and they said we don't give reasons," said Cheek, 29, a part-time Washington resident who was scheduled to leave for Beijing on Wednesday afternoon.
He said his visa request had been granted a few weeks ago. "I said, who else can I speak to about this, and they said, 'There is no other recourse.' "
Cheek said that Team Darfur's co-founder, former UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner, had received a similar call about 10 minutes earlier.
The two had planned to attend the Games, which officially open on Friday, to support more than 70 Olympians from around the world who have signed on to support Team Darfur.
The action by Chinese officials is precisely the sort of measure that has been feared by those with misgivings about the International Olympic Committee's decision in 2001 to award the Games to China: that the country's officials would thwart the free expression of visitors and muzzle dissent among activists both inside and outside the country despite promises to the contrary.
By barring the co-founders of Team Darfur, China sent a powerful worldwide message without having to bar actual participants in the Games, which would interfere with the orderly, harmonious competition that China President Hu Jintao has vowed to stage.
"I'm not surprised they did this, because they said they were going to keep out activists," Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said from Beijing. "But these are legitimate Olympians with a history with the Olympics. I'd sure like to know what the [International Olympic Committee has to say about this]. I think it's really disappointing."
A spokeswoman for the IOC said the organization had learned of the development through the media and referred questions to Chinese officials.
"These applications from non-accredited press, this doesn't come within the IOC's [purview]," spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said.
"This is the first we've heard of this," U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Communications Officer Darryl Seibel said. "We are contacting the U.S. Embassy to see what they know about it."
No one at the Chinese Embassy in Washington could be reached to comment in calls made after the close of business Tuesday. A statement received Wednesday morning by fax from the spokesman's office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said: "Visa is a sovereign affair of one country, according to Chinese laws and regulations, and based on other host countries' practice on previous Olympics and other large scale events, China has made appropriate arrangements for foreign entry visas during the Olympic Games . . ."
Cheek and Greiner are not the first athletes from Team Darfur to have visa trouble, Team Darfur spokeswoman Emma Mackinnon said. She said synchronized swimmer Kendra Zanotto, a 2004 bronze medalist who planned to attend the Beijing Games as a freelance journalist, had been denied a visa.
Mackinnon also said a number of non-American Team Darfur members contacted the central office in recent weeks asking to be disassociated from the group. She said all have asked for anonymity, but a few confided that their national Olympic committees had put pressure on them to cut ties.
Team Darfur's Web site lists 120 athletes from the United States as members, though 17 have declined to allow their names to be published and are cited only by sport. The list includes current soccer star Abby Wambach, retired Winter and Summer Olympian Chris Witty, world champion triathlete Siri Lindley and retired swimming gold medalist Summer Sanders.
A North Carolina native and Princeton undergraduate, Cheek emerged as an unlikely hero of the 2006 Turin Games after winning speedskating gold and silver medals. But what endeared Cheek to his fellow Olympians and many followers of the Games was his decision to donate his $40,000 bonus from the USOC to Right to Play, an organization founded to use sports as a platform to help needy children in Sudan.
Cheek challenged fellow Olympians to do the same, and more than $1 million was raised. The U.S. delegation honored him by selecting him to carry the U.S. flag during the closing ceremonies in Turin.
He was also honored by the USOC as its Sportsman of the Year, and he was among the Winter Olympians invited to the White House in May 2006, hailed during the visit by President Bush as "a wonderful example for us all."
The White House had no knowledge of the Chinese action, press secretary Dana Perino said Wednesday morning in Seoul. She said officials would look into the matter.
Following his retirement from competitive speedskating, Cheek co-founded Team Darfur, an organization designed to draw attention to the plight of children in the troubled region. In speeches, appearances and commentary to promote the organization, Cheek was careful not to advocate a boycott of the 2008 Games or the violation of any IOC rules.
Cheek planned to attend the Games to support members of Team Darfur and attend several events to which he had been invited. He said he had been asked to be a member of a panel discussion on sports conflict resolution by the Olympic Alumni Association.
"I was going there to support athletes and be part of the Olympics," Cheek said. "I thought I was a permanent member of the Olympic body. The Olympic Alumni Association's tagline is 'Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.' You're never supposed to be a 'former Olympian.' "
"I am saddened not to be able to attend the Games," Cheek said in the statement. "The Olympic Games represent something powerful: that people can come together from around the world and do things that no one thought were possible. However, the denial of my visa is a part of a systemic effort by the Chinese government to coerce and threaten athletes who are speaking out on behalf of the innocent people of Darfur."