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The TNR Q&A: Joey Cheek

The Olympic gold medalist and Darfur activist talks about being denied a visa to Beijing and the proper role of athletes in politics.

Just hours before Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek was to depart for Beijing this week, the speed skater had his visa revoked. The official who called to notify him said China was "not required to give him a reason." Cheek’s opinion of the Chinese government is no secret. He is president and co-founder of Team Darfur, a coalition of Olympic athletes trying to bring attention to the Sudan crisis. China, which has strong economic and energy ties to the African country, has been a prime target of the campaign.

Beijing-based journalist Alex Pasternack spoke with Cheek on Thursday while he was in Washington, D.C.

Pasternack: How do you feel about all the attention you've received as a result of this?

Cheek: They gave me a visa, let me have it for a month, and then, 24 hours before my flight, they yanked it from me. It was kind of ridiculous and petty. And it speaks to a broader problem. They're so desperate to have the Games look like their version of a success that they would threaten anyone who says something they don't like. This is the story in general. It's not just about my visa. We've heard tales from other members of Team Darfur whose embassies have been approached by the Chinese. If they stay a part of the team, they'll be treated as suspect individuals, scrutinized, receive extra security, be threatened with heavy handed tactics. And this is all over. It's not just the Beijing officials, but the IOC [International Olympics Committee] and sponsors are being complicit in this. That's something that needs to be responded to.

What do you think about the U.S.'s response?

It's great. I'm happy my government supported me on this--that they think I should be there. I hope they can make efforts, and it would be great if they could try to get me a visa. But it would be even better to get more support for Darfur, to get the pressure off the athletes, and protect rights of freedom of speech. It may not matter whether or not I have a visa. But if this situation helps [get more support for Darfur], good.

What did you hope you could do if you came to Beijing?

Be there to support the 72 athletes who are part of Team Darfur. And as a former Olympic athlete and Olympic champion, speak to people. I was asked to come to a number of forums, including one by UN officials over the role of athletes in world conflicts, and different things with members of the press. I would come to talk about my organization and share what the Olympics experience means for the athletes to the IOC officials and others.

The IOC and Beijing have reiterated the notion that politics and sports should not mix. What role can athletes play in political issues?

Athletes have to occupy a careful position. That they can do more than usual on a political level during the Olympics--that idea comes from the point of view that the Games were created to help humanity and peace, based around the idea that the global community of people who love athletes and sports believe in that idea.

But the first priority of course is to compete. That said, I think athletes have a great spotlight, a great opportunity to highlight the things that they personally morally believe. They should have the right to do that. There's a way to be respectful, constructive, and talk about the issues that they are concerned about….They'll do their sports, but do so within their moral structure.

What form of protest do you think would be appropriate for athletes to undertake?

We've never advocated any athlete breaking any IOC rules or Chinese laws. As an athlete you have a great spotlight in which to highlight crises and need people to have that without breaking rules. But it's becoming increasingly evident that the rules don't really matter. They don't want you to mention anything. They're afraid that speaking out will tarnish this image that the world has of the Olympics. But it's a deeply ironic thing--their attempts to make this look perfect and happy come across as incredibly paranoid, and ends up having the opposite effect.

Would you advocate a more silent or implicit form of protest on the playing field or on the medal podium?

I think there are many ways of protesting. Every person is an individual, and most are going to be focused on athletic performance, because that's what you spent your life working toward. But I think you still have room within to speak your ideals. The athletes will be asked what they feel about it, and they'll be given a public forum. The ties between Sudan and China are real. And the crisis the people are suffering there goes against the ideals of the Olympics. There is a positive and constructive way to advance this discussion and protect those people. The killing is still going on.

What did you think of the reaction to the cyclists who, on the advice of their lead exercise physiologist, wore face masks when they got off the plane in Beijing? The U.S. Olympic Committee was first to chastise them.

This is the problem with a system based around censorship. Even if don't make a political gesture, it can easily be construed as one. For example, let's say there's not proper food at the Olympic village. For most people, not a big deal, but for athletes, that's a massive thing. But if you complain about it, are you going to be accused of trying to ruin this special event? At what point do you cross that line? But if the U.S. Olympic Committee is not standing up first and foremost to be concerned about health, they should be.

At this point, what regrets do you have about the Olympics?

The potential for the Games was so great. But compared to what we could have seen, it's hard not to be a bit disappointed. There was talk about how the Olympics was supposed to open up the Chinese government and help it become far more welcoming to the world. But in terms of accepting criticism, they continue to stand by their arguments. If their position is indefensible, the IOC should call them on it. I would love to see China feel actually confident with what they have done. Instead they have micromanaged people and put pressure on those they don't agree with.

How optimistic are you about what these Games could mean for Darfur?

We won't know the results well after it’s passed. But I hope there is no more closing-off and no more rising nationalism in China. I don't want them to see the world as trying to insult them, but simply see that the world wants China to defend fundamental rights that it believes all people are entitled to. I just hope things don't go backwards from here. People should be able to see the Olympics, and see that people can come together in peace.

By Alex Pasternack