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Cheek: Darfur Work May Have Led To Revoked Visa

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

If everything had gone according to plan, Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek would be on an airplane right now headed for Beijing. But yesterday, the retired speed skater received a phone call from the Chinese visa office here, telling him his visa was revoked. Cheek is co-founder of Team Darfur, a group of athletes working to raise awareness of the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and the Chinese government's support for that regime.

You may remember that in 2006, he donated his Olympic bonus money to help refugees from Darfur. And Joey Cheek joins me now in our studios. Welcome.

Mr. JOEY CHEEK (Co-Founder, Team Darfur): Melissa, thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Why do you think your visa was revoked? What explanation were you given?

Mr. CHEEK: Well, actually, I was given no explanation. When I asked for an explanation, I was informed that there was no explanation needed, that they could revoke at any time for any reason. And so I never received any actual reason. I'm certain - I mean, it was my efforts as part of Team Darfur, and at times I'd been, you know, critical of, you know, the role that China has played in supporting Sudan, and I think that they can do a much better role.

BLOCK: You have been quite outspoken on that. You wrote an op-ed back in May calling China the genocidal regime's key defender at the United Nations. Do you think that did get you in trouble?

Mr. CHEEK: It's entirely possible. You know, I think in addition to my having my visa revoked, we started to hear reports from athletes who have been involved with Team Darfur and were getting calls from their national Olympic committees who have been approached by other Chinese government officials, and basically telling them if they were a part of Team Darfur that they would be viewed as suspect individuals going into the Beijing Games. We had athletes from several different countries repeat a very similar story.

BLOCK: Does that include athletes from the U.S.?

Mr. CHEEK: It does not include athletes from the U.S. It includes athletes from countries that I think China has much, much greater influence over.

BLOCK: What were your plans for Beijing? Had you planned to be speaking out on this issue?

Mr. CHEEK: Well, Team Darfur has 72 athletes competing in Beijing, and so my role as I saw it was I would be there to support any athletes in whatever role they may need me. And then the other role was as an Olympic alumnus. We are - I was invited to speak at a panel discussion on Olympism and conflict resolution. I was going to speak - my intention were to speak with U.N. ambassadors, with IOC members if possible.

Now, I certainly wouldn't shy away from saying I think that the role of the Olympics and the role that the Chinese government can play especially in Darfur I think has been - has been not served. However, I didn't have any protest plan, and in fact before the games even started, we told every athlete traveling to Beijing, you know, don't bring any Team Darfur gear or wristbands or paraphernalia because the IOC forbids you from wearing it.

BLOCK: Well, it's interesting because you mentioned the role that Olympics can play, but they are supposed to be apolitical, right? I mean, you're expressly told that as Olympic athletes.

Mr. CHEEK: Right, they are. In the same breath, they're said to be apolitical, they're said to be a celebration of human rights, and they're said to be a sporting festival we hope that can transcend mere sporting festivals. And when you lay claim to such lofty ideals, at some point - unless you're prepared to actually live the ideals you're speaking of - you're going to run into friction.

And I think that's some of the case here. I think when we talk about the crisis in Darfur, we talk about the millions of innocent people that are suffering there, and we talk about the positive role that China could play should they choose to, and the rest of the international community; I mean these people have been failed, I think, at every level.

BLOCK: I understand that one of the members of Team Darfur - this is Lopez Lomong…

Mr. CHEEK: Yeah.

BLOCK: …has been chosen to carry the American flag during opening ceremonies.

Mr. CHEEK: I just heard that. Yeah. It's just amazing. His story, his story - he was an athlete from South Sudan, was kidnapped and fled, lived in a refugee camp, finally made his way through a program for refugees to the U.S.

BLOCK: He's one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan.

Mr. CHEEK: He was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan - makes his way to the U.S. and makes the U.S. Olympic team in track and field. And when I heard that the U.S. team had selected him - the way that works, the captains from all of the teams get together and nominate and then choose the flag bearer.

You know, it just encapsulates, I think, the feeling I've had about Olympians all along, and U.S. Olympians in particular, that we truly do care about the world and we care about people. And this particular example is just one more. I mean, imagine how many more of Lopez's stories are living every day in these camps and in internally displaced refugee camps in Darfur and Chad right now.

BLOCK: Assuming the situation stays the same and you do not get a visa, will you be watching the game?

Mr. CHEEK: Certainly. The thing - the hardest part for all of this has been, for me, how - I am an enormous fan of the Olympics, and I am a fervent believer that the Olympic games can be a force for - a productive force for good things. They can bring people together, but they can also be a social force for change.

You know, I think it's a shame that some government officials in China seem to really be hammering on the freedom of speech and the rights of a lot of individuals as hosted these games. So that aspect of it really disturbs me and disgusts me, but I am a huge fan of the Olympics. I love the games.

BLOCK: Disgust you.

Mr. CHEEK: Yeah, it does disgust me. It disgusts me that - that, you know, for one, athletes, they joined Team Darfur. They did so because they really want to speak out and give something back to people who they really had no reason to. They're not gaining anything from this. They didn't do it because they want to be involved in politics. They didn't do it because I would make a penny from being part of Team Darfur. There's no way.

And many of them are not medal winners. They're not people who are gonna win medals. But they did it because they think it's right. And for those people to be pressured or to be - to feel like they're threatened for speaking out and what I believe is their God-given right to speak about whatever issue concerns them, especially as it relates to how they perceive the Olympics, for them to be threatened or pressured, that disgusts me.

BLOCK: Joey Cheek, thanks for coming in.

Mr. CHEEK: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Joey Cheek won gold and silver medals in speed skating at the 2006 Winter Olympics. He's a co-founder of Team Darfur. We contacted the Chinese Embassy here in Washington for comment on why Cheek's visa was revoked. We haven't yet received a response. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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