Even before the opening ceremonies, the Olympics got off to a bad start for the United States: The U.S. women's soccer team, ranked number one in the world, looked uninspired in an upset loss to Norway. At least the American soccer players were allowed to enter China, though. The same cannot be said of Joey Cheek, the American speed-skating gold medalist who planned on attending the Olympics as a spectator and co-founder of Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes that promotes awareness of the Darfur genocide. The day before he was set to leave for Beijing, Cheek was notified by Chinese authorities that his visa had been revoked.
The snubbing of Cheek is part of a predictable pattern. At least three other members of Team Darfur, including 2004 synchronized swimming bronze medalist Kendra Zanotto, have also had their visas revoked. Meanwhile, two American and two British citizens were arrested and deported for unfurling a pro-Tibet banner outside the Olympic stadium.
If the Chinese government insists on preventing athletes, spectators, and activists from making political statements during the Olympics, it is incumbent upon those competing in the games to respond appropriately. We're pleased to observe that some are already distinguishing themselves in this regard. Forty Olympic athletes have signed an open letter to President Hu Jintao urging China to improve its human rights record, and German fencer Imke Duplitzer, a silver medalist four years ago, announced she would skip the opening ceremonies in protest. Also impressive was the decision by the American delegation to have runner Lopez Lomong carry the U.S. flag at the opening ceremonies. Lomong, a member of Team Darfur, is a Sudanese native who was taken from his parents by rebels at the age of six, grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya, was adopted by a family in upstate New York, and became an American citizen last July after attending Northern Arizona University.
These are the kinds of actions we envisioned when we called upon athletes to make their voices heard during the Olympics ("Gold Meddle," October 22, 2007), and we hope there will be many more--and more vocal--political statements made by athletes during the course of the games. It would also be nice if the International Olympic Committee and American Olympic officials could see fit to defend the free-speech rights of their athletes. "He's not part of our delegation," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO James Scherr said in response to Cheek's visa revocation, which he described as being "between the [Chinese] government and Joey as a private citizen." On the contrary, with the eyes of the world focused on Beijing, it's a matter of the utmost public significance whether the Chinese government succeeds in intimidating would-be protesters into silence.