Joey Cheek Ranks Among the Last of the Activist Athletes

Speedskater Joey Cheek has worked to discuss suffering in Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur.
Speedskater Joey Cheek has worked to discuss suffering in Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

There was clarity in Joey Cheek's athletic calling: Skate in a circle as fast as possible.

As the fastest man in the 500 meters, Cheek won gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics. And after he donated his winnings to a charity that helped children in disadvantaged countries play sports, he was hailed as the Olympic ideal and chosen to carry the U.S. flag in the Closing Ceremonies.

But Cheek soon found out that his impulse to do good outside the Olympic arena was a far murkier proposition.

Without explanation, Chinese officials revoked Cheek's visa on the eve of his departure for the 2008 Beijing Games, where he had planned to discuss the suffering in Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur. The U.S. Olympic Committee distanced itself from the three-time medalist, noting that Cheek wasn't part of its official delegation. And with the International Olympic Committee silent, Cheek was left to promote his cause from the Washington office of Team Darfur, a coalition of concerned athletes he helped organize in 2007.

Today, Cheek, 30, is a rising junior at Princeton University, where he is majoring in economics, pursuing a minor in Chinese and increasingly fascinated by the country that did not welcome him. Cheek is hardly the first athlete to be celebrated for pushing the boundaries of human performance yet rebuked for pushing matters of conscience. He comes from a long tradition yet represents an increasingly rare breed, given the millions of dollars that are often at stake in long-term contracts and endorsement deals.

"Sports is a bigger business than ever," says Orin Starn, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University. "And athletes preserve the viability of their brand by not saying anything controversial."

In Cheek's case, he doesn't regret his effort to advocate higher ideals against the Olympic backdrop. But he is of two minds about what the Beijing Games achieved. On one hand, he believes they showcased the best of China: the hospitality of its citizens and the efficiency of its government in erecting such breathtaking venues and massive infrastructure.

On the other, he believes they also revealed the government's intolerance of criticism and the IOC's willingness to capitulate on such fundamental principles as freedom of speech and assembly for fear of offending the host nation and alienating the multinational corporations that bankrolled the Games.

Regarding the achievements of Team Darfur, Cheek isn't certain how best to gauge results.

"Is success that we got people to hear more about it? Maybe," he muses. "Is success that there were fewer people killed because of the efforts we made? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes you feel like the only thing that matters is if you have a billion dollars or a cruise missile."

Cheek said he was inspired to do something meaningful after winning bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and realizing that an Olympian's moment in the spotlight is brief and that medals, while tremendous honors, don't change anyone's life.

So he vowed to find a way to leverage that moment to achieve something lasting if he were to win a medal at the 2006 Games.

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