My Interview with Joey Cheek on China's Denial of His Visa, Darfur, and the Politics of the Olympics

Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek wasn't expecting to be denied entry to Beijing. But on Wednesday, just hours before he was to depart for the Chinese captial, the speedskater had his visa revoked. The official who called to notify him said China was "not required to give him a reason."

But it's quite obvious why China doesn't want Cheek at its big party. The president and co-founder of a collection of Olympic athletes known as Team Darfur, he has worked for years on advancing peace in the war-torn Darfur area of Sudan. China, which has strong economic and energy ties to the African country, has been a prime target of the campaign. After the 2006 Games in Torino, Cheek, a native of Greensboro, N.C., donated his $40,000 in medal winnings to Darfurian refugees in Chad.

Just hours after Cheek got the call however, Team Darfur won a small victory. The U.S. Olympic team captains chose Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong as the flag bearer for the U.S. team--an honor that Cheek himself had at the closing ceremonies in Torino. Lomong is also a member of Team Darfur.

I spoke to Joey on the phone Friday morning from Beijing. He was in D.C., shuttling between TV interviews.

What does it mean to you that Lopez Lomong was chosen as the flag bearer -- and what message does it send?

I am thrilled by this decision by the US Olympians. It just seems so relevant. I was really touched that the American captains all picked Lomong, it just reflects everything I love about Olympians and the Olympic spirit. That they chose, while in China, to honor a man from the Sudan, a refugee of war, for whom running was so much more than a sport, is incredibly moving. What I hope the world sees, though, is that Lopez is the one who made it, but there are hundreds of thousands of other children who are going through war and violence now, many of them also in the Sudan.

Have you heard any other reports from members of Team Darfur about unfriendly treatment by the Chinese?

Yes. Chris Boyles, an elite decathlete, and Kendra Zanotto, a bronze medalist in synchronized swimming, were both headed to Beijing - Chris to assist a doctor, Kendra as a reporter on swimming events. Kendra's visa was denied, and Chris's was revoked the day before mine was. In addition, at least four Team Darfur athletes heard from their Olympic Committees, who had heard from the Chinese government, that if they went to Beijing as members of Team Darfur they would be harassed, followed and interrogated, so they withdrew their membership.

The fist-raising in Mexico City 68 was denounced at the time. If something did happen like that in Beijing how might the world see it?

I think these are definitely different times. Personally, nothing means more to me than seeing an action such as the American athletes voting Lopez Lomong to carry the American flag into the Opening Ceremonies. It shows solidarity with someone who has gone through so much - something so similar to what children in Darfur have experienced - and someone who has used his position as an elite athlete to draw attention to areas of the world that desperately need help.

You study Chinese I read -- was that motivated by your interest in Darfur?

I am interested in the Chinese language and the culture. I had planned on studying Chinese even before I got involved with Darfur at the Olympics in 2006. But I do wish I had had the chance to go to Beijing and practice!

Are you feeling like this turn of events may be a good thing ultimately? The spotlight has shifted to you and the cause. Are you worried this visa debacle could actually have a negative effect on advancing peace in Darfur?

I am heartened that Darfur has received so much attention in the past few days from the media, the public, and government leaders. I continue to hope, however, that this attention is not just on a few athletes not getting visas, but stays on the amazing athletes speaking out about Darfur, and the root causes of the conflict there, including China's role in supporting the Sudanese government. I encourage people to visit to learn more about what's happening in Darfur and what you can do to help stop the crisis.

How do you feel about all the attention you've received as a result of this?

They gave me a visa, let me have it for a month, and then, 24 hours before my flight, they yanked it from me. It was kind of ridiculous and petty. And it speaks to a broader problem. They're so desperate to have the Games look like their version of a success that they would threaten anyone who says something they don't like. This is the story in general. It's not just about my visa. We've heard tales from other members of Team Darfur whose embassies have been approached by the Chinese. If they stay a part of the team, they'll be treated as suspect individuals, scrutinized, receive extra security, be threatened with heavy handed tactics. And this is all over. It's not just the Beijing officials, but the IOC [International Olympics Committee] and sponsors are being complicit in this. That's something that needs to be responded to.

What do you think about the U.S.'s response?

It's great. I'm happy my government supported me on this--that they think I should be there. I hope they can make efforts, and it would be great if they could try to get me a visa. But it would be even better to get more support for Darfur, to get the pressure off the athletes, and protect rights of freedom of speech. It may not matter whether or not I have a visa. But if this situation helps [get more support for Darfur], good.

What did you hope you could do if you came to Beijing?

Be there to support the 72 athletes who are part of Team Darfur. And as a former Olympic athlete and Olympic champion, speak to people. I was asked to come to a number of forums, including one by UN officials over the role of athletes in world conflicts, and different things with members of the press. I would come to talk about my organization and share what the Olympics experience means for the athletes to the IOC officials and others.

The IOC and Beijing have reiterated the notion that politics and sports should not mix. What role can athletes play in political issues?

Athletes have to occupy a careful position. That they can do more than usual on a political level during the Olympics--that idea comes from the point of view that the Games were created to help humanity and peace, based around the idea that the global community of people who love athletes and sports believe in that idea.

But the first priority of course is to compete. That said, I think athletes have a great spotlight, a great opportunity to highlight the things that they personally morally believe. They should have the right to do that. There's a way to be respectful, constructive, and talk about the issues that they are concerned about....They'll do their sports, but do so within their moral structure.

What form of protest do you think would be appropriate for athletes to undertake?

We've never advocated any athlete breaking any IOC rules or Chinese laws. As an athlete you have a great spotlight in which to highlight crises and need people to have that without breaking rules. But it's becoming increasingly evident that the rules don't really matter. They don't want you to mention anything. They're afraid that speaking out will tarnish this image that the world has of the Olympics. But it's a deeply ironic thing--their attempts to make this look perfect and happy come across as incredibly paranoid, and ends up having the opposite effect.

Would you advocate a more silent or implicit form of protest on the playing field or on the medal podium?

I think there are many ways of protesting. Every person is an individual, and most are going to be focused on athletic performance, because that's what you spent your life working toward. But I think you still have room within to speak your ideals. The athletes will be asked what they feel about it, and they'll be given a public forum. The ties between Sudan and China are real. And the crisis the people are suffering there goes against the ideals of the Olympics. There is a positive and constructive way to advance this discussion and protect those people. The killing is still going on.

What did you think of the reaction to the cyclists who, on the advice of their lead exercise physiologist, wore face masks when they got off the plane in Beijing? The U.S. Olympic Committee was first to chastise them.

This is the problem with a system based around censorship. Even if don't make a political gesture, it can easily be construed as one. For example, let's say there's not proper food at the Olympic village. For most people, not a big deal, but for athletes, that's a massive thing. But if you complain about it, are you going to be accused of trying to ruin this special event? At what point do you cross that line? But if the U.S. Olympic Committee is not standing up first and foremost to be concerned about health, they should be.

At this point, what regrets do you have about the Olympics?

The potential for the Games was so great. But compared to what we could have seen, it's hard not to be a bit disappointed. There was talk about how the Olympics was supposed to open up the Chinese government and help it become far more welcoming to the world. But in terms of accepting criticism, they continue to stand by their arguments. If their position is indefensible, the IOC should call them on it. I would love to see China feel actually confident with what they have done. Instead they have micromanaged people and put pressure on those they don't agree with.

How optimistic are you about what these Games could mean for Darfur?

We won't know the results well after it's passed. But I hope there is no more closing-off and no more rising nationalism in China. I don't want them to see the world as trying to insult them, but simply see that the world wants China to defend fundamental rights that it believes all people are entitled to. I just hope things don't go backwards from here. People should be able to see the Olympics, and see that people can come together in peace.

Part of this interview originally appeared at the New Republic.