Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek wasn't expecting to be denied entry to Beijing. But on Wednesday, just hours before he was to depart for the Chinese capital, the speed-skater had his visa revoked. The official who called to notify him said China was "not required to give him a reason."
But it's quite obvious why China doesn't want Cheek at its big party. The president and co-founder of a collection of Olympic athletes known as Team Darfur, he has worked for years on advancing peace in the war-torn Darfur area of Sudan. China, which has strong economic and energy ties to the African country, has been a prime target of the campaign. After the 2006 Games in Torino, Cheek, a native of Greensboro, N.C., donated his $40,000 in medal winnings to Darfurian refugees in Chad.
Just hours after Cheek got the call however, Team Darfur won a small victory. The U.S. Olympic team captains chose Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong as the flag bearer for the U.S. team--an honor that Cheek himself had at the closing ceremonies in Torino. Lomong is also a member of Team Darfur.
I spoke to Joey on the phone yesterday from Beijing. He was in D.C., shuttling between TV interviews.
What does it mean to you that Lopez Lomong was chosen as the flag bearer -- and what message does it send?
I am thrilled by this decision by the US Olympians. It just seems so relevant. I was really touched that the American captains all picked Lomong, it just reflects everything I love about Olympians and the Olympic spirit. That they chose, while in China, to honor a man from the Sudan, a refugee of war, for whom running was so much more than a sport, is incredibly moving. What I hope the world sees, though, is that Lopez is the one who made it, but there are hundreds of thousands of other children who are going through war and violence now, many of them also in the Sudan.
Have you heard any other reports from members of Team Darfur about unfriendly treatment by the Chinese authorities?
Yes. Chris Boyles, an elite decathlete, and Kendra Zanotto, a bronze medalist in synchronized swimming, were both headed to Beijing - Chris to assist a doctor, Kendra as a reporter on swimming events. Kendra's visa was denied, and Chris's was revoked the day before mine was. In addition, at least four Team Darfur athletes heard from their Olympic Committees, who had heard from the Chinese government, that if they went to Beijing as members of Team Darfur they would be harassed, followed and interrogated, so they withdrew their membership.
The fist-raising in Mexico City 68 was denounced at the time. If something did happen like that in Beijing how might the world see it?
I think these are definitely different times. Personally, nothing means more to me than seeing an action such as the American athletes voting Lopez Lomong to carry the American flag into the Opening Ceremonies. It shows solidarity with someone who has gone through so much - something so similar to what children in Darfur have experienced -- and someone who has used his position as an elite athlete to draw attention to areas of the world that desperately need help.
You're studying Mandarin I hear. Was that motivated by your interest in Darfur?
I am interested in the Chinese language and the culture. I had planned on studying Chinese even before I got involved with Darfur at the Olympics in 2006. But I do wish I had had the chance to go to Beijing and practice!
Are you feeling like this turn of events may be a good thing ultimately? The spotlight has shifted to you and the cause. Are you worried this visa debacle could actually have a negative effect on advancing peace in Darfur?
I am heartened that Darfur has received so much attention in the past few days from the media, the public, and government leaders. I continue to hope, however, that this attention is not just on a few athletes not getting visas, but stays on the amazing athletes speaking out about Darfur, and the root causes of the conflict there, including China's role in supporting the Sudanese government. I encourage people to visit www.teamdarfur.org to learn more about what's happening in Darfur and what you can do to help stop the crisis.
See my longer interview with Cheek at The New Republic
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