There was no peace in Darfur when Joey Cheek was winning speedskating medals at the Winter Olympics two years ago. He — and many fellow Olympians — want the violence to halt in the troubled Sudanese province when the Summer Games begin in China next month.
Cheek presented a letter Tuesday signed by more than 130 current and former Olympians and Olympic hopefuls from 22 countries. Addressed to President Bush, the president of China and other world leaders, it urges the international community to do what it can to persuade Sudan to observe the ancient tradition of the Olympic truce during the Beijing Games.
"My obligation, my opportunity, as long as I have a spotlight, is to be able to help those people who cannot help themselves,'' said Cheek, president and co-founder of an international group of athletes known as Team Darfur. "While I was competing in Torino, it was most likely that people died. People were going to die in their homes, people were driven from their homes and left for dead. And that notion offended me.
"Two and half years later, we're coming up to another Olympic games, and we're still talking about this.''
The Olympic truce dates to the ancient games in Greece, when fighting was halted to ensure athletes had safe passage to travel to and from the competitions. Attempts to revive the truce in modern times have met with only modest success, most notably in the Balkans during the 1992 and 1994 Games. Last year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution urging all nations to observe the truce during the Beijing Games.
China supported the resolution, but speakers at Tuesday's news conference said the Olympic host has continued to support the Sudanese regime as a major trade partner.
More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in fighting in the western Sudanese region since ethnic African tribesmen took up arms in 2003.
Cheek said a truce would not solve Darfur's problems alone, but it would give humanitarian agencies a chance to return to the region and provide the international community a window in which to restart peace talks.
"At the time when I first spoke out about Darfur, I really thought this was something people weren't aware of, and as soon as they were aware of it, it would get fixed,'' Cheek said. "The more I've learned about it, the more complex it becomes. Honestly, I couldn't care less whether it's in vogue or not, it's hundreds of thousands of people in peril because of a few who want them gone because they don't like them there.''
Among those signing the letter was Jessica Mendoza of the U.S. softball team. She plans to wear a Team Darfur bracelet in Beijing.
Mendoza's teammates, Vicky Galindo, Lauren Lappin and Amanda Freed also signed the letter. Also signing were, 15-year-old swimmer Elizabeth Beisel, 1992 gold medal swimmer Summer Sanders, and race walker Philip Dunn, who will be competing in his third Olympics for the U.S.
"We have Olympians who follow a charter, then why can't the world?'' Mendoza said. "It's not asking too much. We're just asking for a few weeks to see what peace can do.''