Cheek bemoans curbs on Olympic free speech

Joey Cheek
Gold and silver Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek, co-founder and president of Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness and ending the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Tuesday, July 1, 2008.Susan Walsh / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former U.S. Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek, founder of a group of athletes called Team Darfur, had a visa for China revoked shortly before he was to embark for Beijing two weeks ago. He had planned to urge China, an economic partner of Sudan, to help make peace in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.

Here are excerpts from comments Cheek e-mailed Wednesday to The Associated Press, regarding how the Chinese authorities and the International Olympic Committee have addressed issues related to dissent and political free speech at the Olympics:

“I would love to see even more athletes involved in speaking out about not only what I believe in, but what they believe in as well. I think that even if there was an athlete that wanted to speak out on issues of human rights, he might be silenced by whatever IOC official is mediating that press event, which leads me to my biggest problem with these Olympics. The idea that the games are only about sport — that has NEVER been the intention of the Olympics. They were created (in the modern incarnation) to be a festival to promote brotherhood, human rights, and peaceful conflict resolution. The Chinese government has repeated the mantra that this is only about sport, people can only talk about sport, etc., so many times that people forget that this event was given in part because China promised it would help improve human rights around the world. The IOC has acquiesced every time the Chinese government has gone back on promises of free speech, free access of the media, etc.

“I think that the games have run with amazing efficiency; I believe that the Chinese people are warm, and have been generally wonderful hosts to the games. By most reasoning it looks like the Chinese will accomplish their goal of winning the most gold medals and they are still very close to the total medal count as well. They have done many amazing things, and I think for that they deserve a lot of credit. However, these games still would have been as successful without what appears to be massive suppression of any voice that the government doesn’t want heard. ...

“The reason I do the work I do on Darfur is because of my experience as an Olympian. I, and any other athlete (or person of course — but this is an Olympics story) who chooses to speak out about issues of conscience when people are losing their lives has every right to do so. That freedom was said to be implicit in the Olympic Charter . ... and it appears that the IOC (and certainly China) has no interest in protecting it, and that I find outrageous.”