Former Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek had his visa revoked by Chinese authorities Wednesday, hours before he was set to travel to Beijing to promote his effort urging China to help make peace in the war-torn Darfur section of Sudan.
Cheek, the president and co-founder of a collection of Olympic athletes known as Team Darfur, was planning to spend about two weeks in China, when he received an unexpected call from authorities.
The 2006 American gold medalist said they told him they were denying him entrance into the country and were “not required to give a reason.”
“I didn’t see it coming,” Cheek said. “I figured once they gave me a visa, I wouldn’t imagine they wouldn’t allow me to come in later. That was a big shock. I wasn’t expecting to get a call the evening before I was leaving for Beijing.”
White House press secretary Dana Perino said the U.S. would protest China’s decision to deny the visa.
One of Cheek’s key initiatives was urging the international community to persuade Sudan to observe the ancient tradition of the Olympic truce during the Beijing Games.
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.
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.
Cheek said he has been upset by China’s treatment of athletes involved in his cause and thinks the International Olympic Committee’s rules that prohibit political protest go against the spirit of the games.
“I’ve been pretty unimpressed with the IOC’s efforts in protecting athletes, for giving them any options,” Cheek said.
IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davis told a news conference that Cheek was not accredited in any official capacity and, therefore, was subject to the usual rules that apply to visitors applying for a visa to enter China.
“Certainly the Olympic Games are about the athletes, the active athletes who are competing,” she said. “He is a normal citizen in this case ... and any citizen has to apply for a visa. It’s a matter for the Chinese government.
“Visa application processes for any country are done by governments. The IOC is not a sovereign government ... we cannot influence sovereign laws.”
Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, called Cheek a “great Olympic champion.”
“We think that it is unfortunate,” Scherr said. “But it’s between this government and Joey as a private citizen.”
Cheek said he has been greeted warmly on his previous trips to China.
“I don’t begrudge them the Olympics, I think they’ll do well with them,” Cheek said. “But there are so many of their government’s policies that I find repulsive, especially for athletes who have no intention but to help someone else.”
He had planned to attend a United Nations Olympic celebration and some charity events but wasn’t planning any big Team Darfur demonstrations. Now he’s scrambling to figure out how to draw attention to his cause back home in Washington.
“Of course I would have liked to have been there, advocating for a peaceful resolution,” he said. “But we’ll figure something out.”