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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 5, 2008 6:19 PM

Athlete/activist Joey Cheek banned from China

Posted by Ron Judd

So much for tolerating dissent.

The Chinese government, which so far has issued a grand total of zero permits for its own citizens to protest legally during the coming Olympics, has revoked the visitation visa of U.S. speedskater and Winter Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek.

Cheek, an organizer of Team Darfur, a group of Olympic athletes seeking to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis in the African nation, was to arrive in Beijing Wednesday to help make the group's case that China is undermining efforts to end suffering in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Cheek was informed by embassy officials Tuesday that his visa was withdrawn and that the government needn't provide a reason, a spokesman for Team Darfur told the Los Angeles Times. Another of the group's founding members, former UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner, also got a call and was asked to meet with Chinese embassy officials on Wednesday.

Cheek, inspired by the prior humanitarian work of speedskating legend Johann Olav Koss of Norway, donated all of his $40,000 bonus money for winning a gold and silver medal at the 2006 Turin Games to Koss's Right to Play foundation, a sports group working to improve the lives of children in disadvantaged areas around the globe.

Other athletes met his challenge, and so did their sponsors: Cheek wound up earning $1 million in charity earmarked for Darfur relief, and is considered a hero among many athletes and others in the sports world. His latest endeavor, Team Darfur, is an effort to raise money and awareness of the Darfur crisis by selling wristbands to athletes and fans. More than 70 Beijing Games athletes from around the world have signed on to Team Darfur.

Cheek released this statement on Tuesday:

I am saddened not to be able to attend the Games. The Olympic Games represent something powerful: that people can come together from around the world and do things that no one thought were possible. However, the denial of my visa is a part of a systemic effort by the Chinese government to coerce and threaten athletes who are speaking out on behalf of the innocent people of Darfur. Team Darfur's main efforts have been to advocate for an Olympic Truce for Darfur, and to raise awareness about the crisis and ask for lasting peace on behalf of the children of Darfur.

The Olympic Truce captures the spirit of the Olympics: around the Games, the world should come together to work for peace and speak out against conflict. The Chinese government's efforts to suppress athletes, even those who are competing in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, who speak about essential human rights issues, is a violation of that core Olympic spirit.

Cheek and others have criticized China for buying oil from Sudan, and selling the Sudanese weapons that reportedly are used in Darfur.

Now he's banned from China, latest Olympic host, for the crime of pushing the joint causes of fair play and human rights -- both key tenets of the Olympic Charter.

UPDATE: If you were expecting the IOC to take a stance against an Olympic host denying a gold-medal winning Olympic athlete entrance to an Olympics, think again.

An IOC spokeswoman, contacted by the New York Times, essentially washed the organization's hands of the matter, saying it's all up to the Chinese:

Emmanuelle Moreau, a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said she was aware of Cheek's visa situation but said she could not comment. Because Cheek is not a current Olympian, "visa applications from non-accredited persons do not fall within the I.OC.'s remit and we are therefore not best placed to answer you on this question," Moreau said in an e-mail message.

A spokesperson for the Beijing Organizing Committee, meanwhile, had no comment, the Times reported.

So this is how it's going to go. The Chinese government will simply stonewall and deny complaints about any controversial facets of "its" Olympics -- from the polluted air inside Olympic venues to the outright banning of prominent Olympic athletes from the Games -- and the IOC will plead impotence.

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August 5, 2008 3:33 PM

USA Swimming still owes USA answers about Hardy case

Posted by Ron Judd

As the Opening Ceremony nears, the U.S. swim team has arrived en masse in Beijing -- reportedly to a layer of smog inside the Water Cube swim venue, which can't be of much comfort to the asthmatics in the crowd.

And earlier today, or yesterday, or tomorrow, or whatever it recently just was in Beijing, Mark Schubert, the U.S. National Team director, finally took a few minutes to answer some questions about the Jessica Hardy case.

Sort of.

Schubert told reporters that USA Swimming was just following protocol when it learned of Hardy's positive drug test -- which, he reiterated, was not until the afternoon of July 21. That happened to be the same day the final Olympic swim roster was due to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which had its own, international deadline two days later. Unlike other sport federations, USA Swimming, inexplicably, does not have a procedure for adding alternates to the team. So once the roster is final, it's final, he said.

Schubert also insisted Hardy was not officially "off" the team until she withdrew from it herself last Friday -- a development that might come as a surprise to other athletes busted for doping, who usually find themselves suspended immediately. Therefore, it was impossible, Schubert insists, to name other swimmers who finished third in events behind Hardy at the Olympic Trials -- such as former Standford swimmer Tara Kirk of Bremerton -- to the squad.

Kirk was livid, and probably rightfully so. She's not going to feel any better after reading Schubert's one noteworthy admission in his mini press briefing in Beijing: Yes, the selection system is flawed, he acknowledged, and needs to be amended next time around.

"Absolutely. Rightfully so," he said in response to a question from a New York Times reporter about the need for reform in the selection process.

"Nobody thought we would be getting drug test results on the 21st and 22nd of July," Schubert added, according to the Los Angeles Times.

All of this, coupled with yesterday's revelation, reported below, that Hardy essentially put her appeals case "on hold" while testing her nutritional supplements for traces of clenbuterol, the banned anabolic agent for which she tested positive, still leaves a shroud of confusion hanging over the matter. Some obvious questions that still need to be addressed by USA Swimming -- and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency:

-- We're all now painfully aware that USA Swimming has no rules provisions for alternates. But why? Why doesn't USA Swimming adopt a process, like most other sports, where third-place finishers are automatically granted provisional, "alternate" status until it's clear everyone on the Olympic team will be injury-free, dope-free, and ready to compete? What happens if an entire busload of swimmers, God forbid, gets in a bus crash after the roster is set? The U.S. just stays home? Who are the geniuses responsible for this? It's not the first time a U.S. swimmer has tested positive, and likely won't be the last.

-- How in the world can it take, in today's modern, supposedly high-tech anti-doping world, 17 days to get from pee-in-the-cup time to alert-the-authorities time? Don't they get these test results overnight at the Olympics?

-- Is anyone at USA Swimming aware of how bad this all looks when one considers the background of officials likely in on this decision? The swimmers filling Hardy's 100-meter breaststroke and 50 meter freestyle slots in the Games will be Rebecca Soni and Kara Lynn Joyce, respectively. They've done nothing wrong, and did nothing to deserve being thrust into a controversy. But most swimming insiders know that Soni, who finished fourth -- one place behind Kirk -- in the 100 breaststroke, swam for Schubert at USC. And Joyce's club coach is Jack Bauerle, who happens to be the current Olympic women's swimming coach.

Yes, they're just following the rules, which stipulate those two swimmers fill the slots. And granted, it's hard to avoid those sorts of potential conflicts of interest in a world as insular as swimming. But it still smells a bit, especially in light of the close-mouthed approach to the matter. At the very least, the governing body opened itself up to charges of favoritism.

-- Why was Hardy allowed to "withdraw" from an Olympic team from which she presumably already had been suspended? USADA officials, in a news release following her de facto plea deal last Friday, practically cooed about her selflessness, which they said was in the best interests of the U.S. Olympic team. OK. But since when are the best interests of the U.S. Olympic team a legitimate matter of concern for USADA, an agency that's supposed to be policing that Olympic team?

Clearly, USA Swimming officials hoped the Hardy deal would make the matter die away quietly before the focus returns to the Swim Team in Beijing. And, sadly, they may yet succeed in that effort.

Or maybe not. People like Kirk, a former national team captain, are still out there, livid, trying to tamp down a burning well of anger, feeling the powerlessness that comes with having multiple doors slammed in your face. You get the sense that Kirk, even though she deserves them, hasn't gotten any better answers to all of the above questions than the rest of us have.

She deserves at least that. And so far, not a single one has been forthcoming from USA Swimming, the organization she has always been assured is there to look after her rights.


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Blogroll and links

www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
www.wcsn.com: News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions.
www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.