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Focused on human rights and wrongs

Cheek, the speedskater and activist who raised awareness of Darfur at Turin, is concerned about the Olympics' approach to China.

February 24, 2008|Philip Hersh | Special to the Times

Joey Cheek was shocked yet no longer surprised that a number of countries have tried to stifle what their athletes at this summer's Beijing Olympics say about China.

Cheek has learned quickly that it is one thing for Olympic officials to espouse the humanitarian ideals expressed in the Olympic Charter and another to insist those officials stand behind the ideals to help alleviate a humanitarian crisis.

"I was lauded worldwide as the Olympic ideal for donating my Olympic bonus money to buy sports equipment for kids in Darfur, but when I started speaking out about the political issues in Darfur, I no longer was the Olympic ideal to some people," Cheek said in a telephone conversation last week.

"What does that tell me? If you help kids play, you're OK. If you want to help protect people from being slaughtered, you're not."

It is two years since Cheek used the media forum available when he became a speedskating gold and silver medalist at the Turin Winter Olympics to highlight the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan. He went a step further, giving his $40,000 in U.S. Olympic Committee bonuses for those medals to Right to Play, an organization that seeks to improve kids' lives by promoting health and hope.

During those two years, Cheek, 28, has retired from speedskating and become not only a Princeton undergraduate but an outspoken part of activist groups trying to find a solution for the crisis in Darfur.

He is a co-founder of Team Darfur, an international athletes coalition "committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan." It now includes 215 athletes from 42 countries, several -- including U.S. softball players Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza -- expected to compete in Beijing.

Cheek also has joined activists, including actress Mia Farrow, director Steven Spielberg and eight Nobel Peace Prize winners, urging China to pressure Sudan to stop atrocities in Darfur. Sudan is a major Chinese oil supplier, and the Chinese sell Sudan weapons reportedly being used against Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 have died and 2.5 million have become refugees since 2003.

The Darfur activists and groups decrying China's repression of dissidents have focused on Beijing's role as Olympic host, saying it is hypocritical for the Olympic Games to take place in a country with such human rights issues.

Team Darfur provides a way for athletes to raise a collective voice, but individual Olympic competitors are being discouraged from speaking.

"We have never said to athletes they are not allowed to give their point of view," IOC spokesperson Emmanuelle Moreau said. "One of our basic principles is freedom of speech. What we do not want is proactive political statements to be made during the Games at Olympic venues."

Cheek is upset about free speech restrictions the Belgian Olympic Committee has placed on athletes and about Britain's attempt to quash all discussion of sensitive issues by its athletes, even if the Brits immediately abandoned that idea after it hit the media.

"It wouldn't make me comfortable about saying what I wanted to say if a reporter asked me about it," Cheek said. "I don't think 100 athletes are going to stand up one after the other and address these issues, but the few that might should have their right to do it protected. I am blown away that this has become an issue in countries that have the same beliefs we do about freedom of speech and religion."

Swimmer Michelle Engelsman, 28, a Team Darfur member who hopes to make a second straight Australian Olympic team, expressed similar dismay about attempts to stifle athletes. Asked via e-mail what she would say should a reporter in Beijing seek her opinion about China's role in Darfur and general attitude toward human rights, Engelsman replied:

"I am against the support of genocide on any level, whether directly or indirectly. Furthermore, those supporting such an atrocity need to be held accountable. I also believe that human rights are not something we have to earn, but rather something that should exist without question."

Another Team Darfur member, 2008 U.S. Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker, 25, plans to discuss only sports in Beijing, where he will compete in triathlon. "Before or after the Olympics, I will talk about the issues and how we best as a world can address these situations," Shoemaker said in an e-mail.

Cheek was bemused by the line Belgium has drawn, saying its athletes could not speak out in "Olympic areas" but were free to do so elsewhere. Belgian Olympic Committee secretary general Guido de Bondt defended that distinction by saying, "China is a large country."

Said Cheek: "We don't have much of a chance to go anywhere else but Olympic areas during the Games."

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