Originally posted as a Special to ESPN.com, August 8, 2008.
As someone who has tried to involve athletes as social change agents for more than 40 years, I have come to know the organizers at Team Darfur — a coalition of athletes trying to raise awareness about the human tragedy in Darfur (Sudan) — over the past few months. Team Darfur is unique in its size (nearly 400 athletes from more than 50 countries) and in the power of its voice. Its president is Olympic Winter Games speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek, who co-founded the organization. Cheek was scheduled to leave Wednesday for Beijing, where he intended to urge China — which has made a number of major trade deals, including exchanging weapons for oil, with the ruling regime in Sudan — to push for peace in the war-ravaged Darfur section of Sudan. On the day before his departure, the Chinese government revoked his visa. I spoke with him Friday about the Olympics, China and his visa problems.
Richard Lapchick: Have you been surprised by what has happened to you this week?
Joey Cheek: Although I was surprised by the sequence of events that happened to me, I am not surprised by the efforts by the Chinese government to squelch anything they disagree with.
RL: How did you find out about the visa being withdrawn?
JC: On Aug. 5, I got a call just after 5 p.m. from the Chinese Embassy saying that my visa had been revoked. I asked why, and they said they did not have to give any reason. I asked if there was anyone else I could speak with, and they said no. That appeared to be it. I know there are people who have been lobbying on my behalf, but we’ll see what happens.
RL: Do you think that there is still a possibility that they will succeed and you will still be able to get to Beijing?
JC: I hope so, although I would be very surprised. Going into this event, we have been pushing very hard for the idea of an Olympic Truce to be centered on Darfur. While there already is an Olympic Truce, we wanted it to be tied to something concrete. We thought a focus on Darfur really fit with the Olympic spirit and was a very positive thing all around. While we were working on this, we got calls from at least four athletes from countries all over the world saying that their national Olympic committees had been approached by Chinese officials who told them that their team members who were affiliated with Team Darfur should withdraw or they would be treated as “suspect individuals” subject to screening and extra security measures. The athletes thought they would be harassed in China. We knew already there would be real global pressure by the Chinese to silence any athletes who would speak out about Darfur either while in China or before they arrived.
RL: Do you think that the choice of Lopez Lomong, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, as our flag bearer is a statement by the U.S. about Darfur?
JC: I want it to be clear that Lopez was chosen by his U.S. Olympic teammates and not by the U.S. government. I don’t think it had anything to do with my situation. Lopez’s story stands on its own and is so amazing. I think that his being chosen is an example of the greatest things about the United States and of the greatest things about the Olympics. That being said, it does serve as an example for us because Lopez came from that region and escaped from the same cycle of violence that has been happening in Darfur. How many more Lopezes are there? Right now, we are talking about 2.5 million. That is why I think it is within the Olympic ideals to talk about the issue of Darfur if you choose to.
RL: Everything that I have read about Lopez or quotes attributed to him since he was selected do not include the political issue. Do you think he might change that after the Games are over?
JC: I think that every person should be able to speak to what they feel comfortable with. Some people feel stronger than others. I think that his life alone stands as an example of why these issues are important. I think the Olympics are meant to address such issues. I think his example, just his story, is a strong enough example of the fact that this is something that we need to fight for.
RL: Have you met him?
JC: I never met him in person, but I hope to.
RL: What do you think is next for Team Darfur?
JC: We are going to wait and see. The Olympics is just starting today, and there are 72 athletes competing in these Games and more than 390 athletes worldwide who are part of Team Darfur. We will continue to reach out to them, now and after the Olympics. Several of the athletes have asked to travel into the region, so we are looking forward to some sort of trip after the Games for them. We will see where it leads.
RL: If you were in Beijing now, what would you be doing?
JC: Well, I would be there in two ways. The first is that I would support Team Darfur athletes however they need might it. I would also be there to support other athletes who might sign on to this.
The second reason for being there is, as an Olympic alumnus and member of the Olympic family, there are a number of forums, meetings and opportunities with the press where some Olympians talk about the Olympic ideals we typically espouse. We have gotten away from them going into these Games, but the Olympics can serve as a force for conflict resolution. The Olympics can serve as a way to improve human rights around the world. The Olympics bring people together. I fervently believe in every single one of those things. But I also adamantly believe that athletes have the right to speak freely whenever they are addressed by the press or whenever they choose. I think there is a time and place when it is appropriate. I believe that freedom for an athlete is crucial and there should not be any pressure on them. They should not feel that they are threatened when speaking out. This is absolutely an essential right that should be guaranteed by the Olympic Charter.
RL: Are there people there fulfilling the roles that you hoped to play if you had you gotten there?
JC: I am enormously proud of all the athletes who joined us. It honestly now appears that they did so at some risk. I don’t know how large a risk it is. They signed on with such risk because they felt that it was the right thing to do. No one thought they were going to get rich and no one thought they would get any new media exposure for this when they signed on to it. They did so because Darfur is something that is going on and needs to be addressed and they thought they could help address this by trying to advocate for these people. That is why they signed up. To think this is being considered a negative thing or that they are being accused of trying to be political is just appalling to me.
RL: Do you think in the end that denying you the visa in some way might have helped gain attention for what you are trying to accomplish?
JC: Well, that remains to be seen. It certainly helped expose, I think, some of the dark side that is going into the Games with the Chinese government. I think that in some ways — I can’t say this is a good or bad thing now — but what happened to me may be like a silent warning for athletes who might speak out that they will be smacked down. I certainly think the response of the IOC is not that, “Hey, for all you Olympians after you have completed the Games, we are going to support you, too.” It doesn’t appear that there is much backing of their athletes. So, I think, it remains to be seen whether losing the visa is a net positive. The real hope, of course, is that China and the international community as well can improve their role in protecting civilians in Darfur.
RL: Have you had much contact with U.S. government officials since the denial of your visa?
JC: The office has had the contact, as I have been busy speaking about the issue. I have seen, of course, the press from the president. The speaker of the House wrote a very flattering letter. Mitt Romney wrote a great open letter as well. I think even [John] McCain and, maybe, [Barack] Obama as well have said that they thought that this was a travesty. The response from the U.S. government has been fantastic.
RL: How do you react to the president’s trip to China?
JC: I think that also remains to be seen. I was pleased to see the speech that he gave in Bangkok that really addressed the fact that there were concerns that involve human rights and the rights of individuals. But I don’t know yet whether or not it will have any sort of effect. I hope that it does.
RL: Would you like to be able to sit down and talk with the president when he comes back?
JC: Yes, of course, especially if it meant that we could aid in raising the issue of Darfur and trying to do more to protect their civilians. I am extremely concerned about the pressure that athletes are under and I think it is in direct violation of the Olympic spirit, for sure, although I do not know if it is an actual Charter violation. I would love to speak about those things with the president. But more importantly, of course, is that we could actually do some good for the people of Darfur and for the athletes competing in the Olympics.
RL: Have you been able to be in touch with any of the Team Darfur athletes that are in Beijing now?
JC: We have been able to communicate with several through e-mail, especially after the news started getting around that I had my visa revoked. They wrote that they were sorry I was not able to be there. They said they were proud to be part of Team Darfur and will still be able to represent the ideals that we stand for.
RL: What are your plans for the next few weeks in terms of keeping the issue in the media and in the public’s eye here?
JC: We certainly have been getting calls from a lot of people, and so we have been responding as quickly as possible. I think that we really need to continue to watch and see how things develop as the Games continue. I have not at all lost the belief that the Olympic Games can and should be a great force for bringing people together and for addressing some of the human rights issues that we have been talking about. I think we will be able to continue with that message and continue to talk about the role China could play if it so chose in helping the situation in Darfur. Hopefully, this effort will stand as an example for future Games of ways in which we can be part of the Olympics and still be able to fight for those who are suffering all over the world.
About the Author: Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card in sports, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular commentator for ESPN on issues of diversity in sports.