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U.S. medalist: China barred me because of Darfur

Former speedskater turned activist Joey Cheek believes his visa was revoked because China feared the attention he might bring to the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region: “If these games were in any other country, I would probably be there right now.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

U.S. Olympic medalist Joey Cheek believes his visa was revoked by China because that nation’s government feared the attention he might bring to the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region at the 2008 Olympic Games.

“When we’re talking about Darfur, we’re talking about a humanitarian issue,” Cheek told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Thursday. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who are right now in dire peril.

“As it was said to me today, if these games were in any country other than China, I would probably be there right now.”

Cheek, the speedskater who won a gold and silver in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, was going to Beijing to support the 72 athletes competing at the 2008 Games who have joined Team Darfur. Cheek is the co-founder and president of that organization, an international coalition of 390 current and former athletes raising global awareness of human rights violations taking place in Darfur.

Cheek told Vieira he got the news at 5 a.m. on Tuesday from the Chinese consulate in Washington, D.C.

“And the message basically was, ‘We’re revoking your visa, and we don’t have to give you any reason why,’ ” he said.

Thin iceCheek, who is studying economics and Chinese at Princeton University, has taken the Darfur issue to heart for five years. After the 2006 Games, he announced he was donating his $25,000 USOC bonus to the cause, and he requested his sponsors do the same.

The Darfur conflict started in 2003 as ethnic minority rebels began fighting the Arab-dominated political regime in the African nation of Sudan and its state-backed militias. The United Nations estimates some 400,000 people have died in Sudan’s Darfur region and more than 2.2 million more have been displaced since 2003.

Team Darfur has sought to pressure China over its alliances with the Sudanese government. China is one of the main buyers of oil in the African nation and a major investor in its economy. Other human rights groups have criticized Beijing for not making efforts to resolve the ongoing conflict.

“Team Darfur has been critical of the role China has played in that conflict,” Cheek told Vieira. “But we have always followed the absolute letter of the law when it comes to IOC [International Olympic Committee] rules.

Cheek, 30, said he had hoped to achieve two goals while at the Beijing Games.

“One was to be a supporter of all the athletes that have joined Team Darfur, in whatever role that may be,” he said. “And I don’t know what it could have been, because we don’t really know what to expect.”

The other would have been to speak at panel discussions and possibly talk with U.N. officials and IOC members about China’s involvement with Darfur.

Vieira pointed out that China might feel “you’re poking it in the eye with a stick” with his message.

“Certainly,” Cheek countered. “I’m sure that’s the way they feel, but I think it’s actually part of a much broader effort.

“Every athlete who joins Team Darfur does so because they want to help out other people. They want to use their electric spotlight to give help to other folks. So I think there is a broad effort in China to keep people quiet if they don’t think that they are going to like what you say.”

Actress Mia Farrow, a Darfur campaigner, and Jill Savitt, director of activist group Dream for Darfur, were also denied entry to Beijing for the Olympics — but unlike Cheek’s, their visa applications were denied from the onset. Cheek’s application was approved, but then his visa was revoked suddenly.

Still, Cheek hoped that China might be moderating its stance when it was announced Wednesday that Lopez Lomong won a team captains’ vote to carry the U.S. flag into the Opening Ceremony Friday night. The 1,500-meter runner, one of the “lost boys” displaced from Sudan by the Darfur conflict, has been a U.S. citizen for only 13 months.

“I think he’s real proof of how this U.S. team looks at the world and what a great open mind they have about so many of these stories,” Cheek said. “But I still have to say, when we talk about the Olympics, it’s more than just a sporting event to many of us, to many Olympians. We think of it as a celebration of humanity. And how many more Lopezes are there in areas all over the world, not just Darfur? Unfortunately, you’re not even allowed to speak about that.”

The games and beyond
China’s decision to revoke Cheek’s visa did not go unnoticed by the White House. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday: "We were disturbed to learn that the Chinese had refused his visa. We are taking the matter very seriously ... We hope they change their minds.”

The Cheek situation seemed to further underscore the pressure President Bush has faced from Congress and international advocacy groups to speak out against China’s record on various human rights issues.

In Seoul on Wednesday, the president said he did not believe the Olympics were the appropriate time and place to express criticism of China’s policies and beliefs. But in a speech in Bangkok on Thursday, Bush said he had “deep concerns” about basic freedoms in and relating to China.

The speech did not mention the Olympics or specific abuses that have resulted in criticism of the Chinese government. “The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” Bush said. “So America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists.”

China responded tersely this morning. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China strongly opposed “any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues.”

China has not specifically commented on Cheek’s visa refusal, declaring that the decisions on the issuance of visas were matters of security issues and state sovereignty.

“The aim is to provide an appropriate and safe viewing of competitions and a competitive environment for those watching and participating in the games,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.