Monday, July 30, 2007

Good Guy Is Forgotten in Bad Week for Sports

Published: July 31, 2007

In a little-noticed variation on a widely examined theme, a well-known sports figure stalked the authorities last week as opposed to the other way around. This time, a government played defense while the voice of the people was heard through the mouth of the athlete.

More than 42,000 signatures were delivered to the Chinese Embassy in Washington on behalf of an organization called the Save Darfur Coalition. He went to the front door. Put his finger to the bell.

“Yes?” a voice from the other side said.

“My name is Joey Cheek,” he said. “I am on the U.S. Olympic team. And I am here to deliver petitions that we have collected over the last week imploring China to continue to act strongly to protect the civilians in Darfur.”

That was last Thursday, when Michael Vick was in a Virginia courtroom, beginning his most vital scramble, trying to elude stomach-churning charges brought by federal prosecutors of sponsoring a dogfighting operation that a co-defendant said yesterday was mostly financed by Vick.

Cheek, the American speed skater who won the gold medal in the 500 meters at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, was holding his ground that day with a message — stop the slaughter in Sudan — to the host country of the next summer’s Olympics in Beijing.

“Only you can come in,” the embassy gatekeeper told Cheek, instructing the coalition members with him, along with a Darfuri refugee named Daoud Hari, to retreat.

Clutching thick binders with signatures collected around the United States, Cheek waited as five minutes became 10, 10 became 20, 20 became 30. Just leave them, one of his colleagues suggested.

Not yet, Cheek said, and after more than a half-hour, the front door opened. Into the lobby, to a brief audience with embassy officials, he went to make his drop and propose leading a group of American and Chinese athletes on a trip to Darfur, the violence-racked region of Sudan, a country with which China wields considerable economic clout.

“They didn’t dismiss it,” Cheek said in a telephone interview. “They seemed interested.”

Granted, the timing of his embassy mission wasn’t good, if attention was the desired goal — not in a week when professional sport on so many levels was reeking of malfeasance, from one side of the Atlantic to the other. But shame on us if we can’t take a few moments to applaud Cheek’s patience, conviction and cause.

Today, in this space, the now hounded quarterback Vick, the home run anti-hero Barry Bonds, the allegedly rogue N.B.A. ref, the chemically aided cyclists and even poor, misunderstood Michael Strahan must wait while Cheek explains why mixing politics and sport — specifically the international version — does not violate any sacred, time-honored code.

“The Chinese say, ‘Don’t politicize the Olympics,’ but that’s ridiculous,” Cheek said. “The only reason they wanted it was political, to prove they are a great power on the world stage.”

For the record, he does not support calls to boycott Beijing, only using the Games as leverage to move the Chinese government on Darfur. If his two Olympic experiences have taught him anything, it is that the Games — rampant commercialism and scandals notwithstanding — are as good a stage as any “to fight for an ideal that you believe in.”

More than his medals, Cheek is no doubt remembered for donating his 2006 Olympic prize money to a sport and humanitarian organization championed by Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speed-skating legend. For the standard post-Games period, Cheek was the face on the Wheaties box, America’s feel-good Olympian. He became a regular on the corporate speaking circuit, admittedly cashing in to fund a Princeton education he deferred for one year.

Retired from skating, Cheek resumed giving back, formed his own charitable campaign — called it “Where Will We Be?” — to galvanize Olympians and raise money to fund worthy causes.

He began by stepping onto the Darfur soapbox, but the more he learned about displacement and genocide, the more he couldn’t get off it. He spoke at a Washington rally with Barack Obama and Hollywood activists, targeting, in part, Bush Administration policy. He testified before Congress. He traveled to China, Egypt and the troubled area in Chad near its border with Sudan.

He would like to work with Ira Newble, the journeyman basketball player who last spring collected signatures from his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates on a letter to China protesting Darfur — absent, most notably, the young superstar, LeBron James.

“Most Olympians are nowhere near that level of fame,” Cheek said. “But if it’s a choice between standing up for something I believe in or not because I’m worried about celebrity or money, it’s a no-brainer.”

If only that were the rule, not the exception, a breath of fresh air in the dog days of an uncommonly depressing sports summer.