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20TH WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES | J.A. Adande

His Medal Adds to Heart of Gold

February 14, 2006|J.A. Adande

TURIN, Italy — We have all the answers now, thanks to a guy whose self-described job is to "skate around on ice in tights."

Because of Joey Cheek, we know there's a legitimate reason for the lavish excesses of the Olympics.

We see the value of giving and we even know where to stand on the budding mini-controversy over whether speedskating is an individual or a team sport.

Everything's a team sport, and all time can be put to good use, right down to the 69.76 seconds it took Cheek to complete two races and win the men's 500-meter speedskating competition.

Cheek showed what happens when the Olympic torch falls into the right hands, when it belongs to someone who will use it to illuminate the world's problems and try to solve them.

Cheek announced that he would donate the $25,000 bonus the United States Olympic Committee gives to gold-medal winners to Right to Play, a charity organization founded by former Norwegian Olympic speedskating champion Johann Olav Koss to help disadvantaged children around the world.

"I have a pretty unique opportunity here, so I'm going to take advantage of it while I can," Cheek said at his post-race news conference. "I have been blessed by competing in the Olympics in speedskating. I am grateful that my family supported me through all this and my coaches and friends and my country has supported me wholeheartedly. The United States Olympic Committee has been amazing. Without their support, none of the athletes would be able to train and compete at this level.

"I always felt if I ever did something big like this, I wanted to be prepared to give something back."

Cheek chose to give his money specifically to help in Chad, where he said there are 60,000 children who have been displaced from their homes. I'll take his word for it, since this is something he has been researching. He met with Koss and looked into the financial structure of the organization to be sure it wasn't one of those charities with top-heavy administrative costs that eat up the donations.

About the only thing he got wrong was the website address.

"It's Right to Play, probably dot something org or something," Cheek said.

Actually, it's www.righttoplay.com. The website says the organization's mission is "To improve the lives of children in the most disadvantaged areas of the world by using the power of sport and play for development, health and peace."

The group has programs in place from Azerbaijan to Zambia. And if you thought sports were too trivial to play a role in solving the world's problems, you didn't see Cheek's news conference.

He used it to make a difference, in one small part of one day, knowing full well his moment would end as soon as the next gold-medal winner was crowned.

He didn't use it to bask in the glory or belittle his detractors. He didn't plug his sponsors, naming them only when asked -- and he was asked because he called on them to match his donations.

It's the most surprising, enlightening news conference I've ever seen. It even caught his mother off guard.

"If that's what he's going to do, then that's the best thing he can be doing," Chris Cheek said. "It's just what you do. Think about other people. We don't have a whole lot, but what we have is better than what a lot of people have."

Now I know why half an hour before we heard from Cheek, 2002 gold medalist and Monday's 10th-place finisher Casey FitzRandolph said, "You've got certain guys that you root for, and Joey's one of them. I root for guys not because of what country they're from so much as what type of people they are."

Joey Cheek's good people. He talked about going into politics one day, and I don't think there's a journalist who was in that room who wouldn't vote for him.

Cheek's performance put a whole new spin on the Shani Davis situation. Davis is one of America's best speedskaters. Fellow American Chad Hedrick wanted Davis to join the Team Pursuit squad and boost Hedrick's chances of matching Eric Heiden's haul of five gold medals in a Winter Olympics. Davis stayed out, saying he wanted to be prepared for his 1,000-meter race.

Said FitzRandolph: "It's an individual sport, and you do what's in your best interests. I don't fault Shani."

That was before we heard from Cheek. Afterward, I don't know if you can think in those terms. You have to think about what you can do for others.

Cheek will compete in the 1,000 as well, and then the 26-year-old plans to end his skating career. Somehow, looking out for others didn't slow him in the 500. You'd like to think that, somehow, someway, it helped him beat the field.

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns, go to latimes.com/adande, and to read more by Adande go to latimes.com/adandeblog.

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