Joey Cheek is someone who actually believes in the Olympic ideal, thequaint notion that sports could be used as a force for good, to raiseawareness, understanding and even bring people closer together. The2006 speed skating gold medalist will now not get the chance to test histheories. Cheek, the president of Team Darfur, a coalition of as many as 200 athletes aimed at raising awareness about the suffering in the Sudanese region, had his visa revoked the evening before he was to fly to Beijing.
"I didn’t see it coming," Cheek said. "I figured once they gave me avisa, I wouldn’t imagine they wouldn’t allow me to come in later. Thatwas a big shock. I wasn’t expecting to get a call the evening before Iwas leaving for Beijing."
Cheek wasn’t alone. Team Darfur member Kendra Zanotto, a US bronzemedalist in synchronized swimming at the Athens Games in 2004, was alsodenied entry even though she was attending in an official capacity, as areporter for the Olympic News Service.
The fact that China acted so abruptly, stating that they were "notrequired to give a reason" for these actions is no surprise. The cravenresponse by the International and US Olympic Committee is actuallybracing. No support for their own medalists when the stakes are having agames "without controversy." The irony is that Cheek and Team Darfur area moderate force in this protest drama. They never called for an Olympicboycott and always saw the games as a place to advance dialogue morethan struggle. China and the IOC might pay a price for denying this kindof presence. Already Western protesters have broken onto fields of playto unfurl Tibetan flags. This kind of high profile disruption infuriatesChina and the IOC. But it is also effectively harmless for China’srulers who have been adept at stoking nationalism when "western"protesters raise concerns. More problematic has been the efforts of twoBeijing women Zhang Wei and Ma Xiulan–two of the 1.5 million peopledisplaced to make way for the games. They have been public figuresspeaking out about the human cost of the $40 billion games. LateWednesday, they were taken from their homes by police, trying to clampdown on dissent. We will see if this kind of local action–and reaction–causes a greater headache for China than anything said or done by JoeyCheek.