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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Cheek was informed by embassy officials Tuesday that his visa was withdrawn and that the government needn't provide a reason, a spokesman for Team Darfur told the Los Angeles Times.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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Blogroll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
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