Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek '11 said his visa to attend the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing has been revoked by the Chinese government over his efforts urging China to help make peace in the war-torn region of Darfur.
The 2006 speed skating champion co-founded Team Darfur, an organization of Olympic athletes who seek to draw attention to violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. China is a major consumer of oil produced in Sudan.
Cheek had planned to travel to Beijing this week to support the hundreds of athletes from around the world who have signed on as supporters of Team Darfur.
Cheek received the call from Chinese authorities just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, minutes after receiving an instant message from fellow co-founder Brad Greiner, who was also going to the Beijing games, saying Greiner's visa had been revoked.
"I got this sinking feeling and then the phone rings, and it's the Chinese consulate saying that your visa has been revoked," Cheek told The Daily Princetonian in an interview this morning. "We were kind of shocked. I had received visa approval over a month ago, and I get the call less than 24 hours before I was supposed to hop on a plane. I was shocked it was so close to when I was supposed to leave."
Cheek said that the revoking of his visa will limit his ability to "provide support for all the Team Darfur athletes."
"I don't know what kind of support I can offer them here," he said.
In addition to Cheek and Greiner, 2004 synchronized swimming bronze medalist and Team Darfur member Kendra Zanotto, who had planned to attend the Beijing Games as a journalist, had her visa denied, Cheek said. He added that at least four athletes from other countries were approached by Chinese officials who said they needed to end their activism or else suffer consequences.
"This is one small example of a much broader effort by the Chinese government to pressure athletes to keep quiet on any sort of issue, to muzzle athletes whose only purpose is to help the people of Darfur," Cheek said. "It looks like the Chinese government has been making a systematic, global effort to keep athletes from saying anything at all."
The White House announced today that the United States is disturbed to learn China has revoked the visa and will challenge the decision. President Bush is currently on a trip through Asia that will take him to Beijing for the Olympic opening ceremonies on Friday. The U.S. Olympic Committee has little power to influence the decision since Cheek is not competing in these games and was traveling as a private citizen. Cheek had not advocated a boycott of the 2008 games.
Repeated calls to the Chinese embassy and various consulates seeking comment went unanswered.
A native of North Carolina, the 29-year-old speed skater won the gold medal in the 500 meters and a silver medal in the 1,000 meters at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. He made headlines after donating his $40,000 prize money to Right to Play, a humanitarian organization that uses sports to help underprivileged children around the world. Cheek encouraged other athletes to donate their prizes, and the effort raised more than $1 million. For his efforts, Cheek was asked to carry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies.
International experts estimate that more than 200,000 people have been killed and roughly 2.5 million displaced since African tribesmen began fighting the Sudanese government in 2003. Sudan says Western governments and the media have exaggerated the scale of the conflict.
On July 1, Team Darfur sent a letter to world leaders from 130 athletes calling for an Olympic Truce in Darfur. The truce tradition began during the ancient games in Greece, when fighting stopped to allow athletes to travel safely to and from the competition.