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 primary 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 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.
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