Joey Cheek: The Olympics are about so much more than sport

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There has been a reasonable amount of coverage of Darfur during these Olympic Games. But I would love to see even more athletes involved in speaking out about what they believe in. The problem is that even if there was an athlete that wanted to speak out on issues of human rights, he might be silenced by whatever IOC official is mediating that press event, with a bogus explanation that is my biggest problem with these Olympics: the idea that the Games are only about sport.

That has never been the intention of the Olympics. They were created (in the modern incarnation) to be a festival to promote brotherhood, human rights, and peaceful conflict resolution. The Chinese government has repeated the mantra that this is only about sport, and so people can only talk about sport, so many times that people forget that this event was given to the China in part because the government promised it would help improve human rights around the world.

But every time the Chinese government has gone back on guarantees of free speech, free access for the media, and a number of the other issues, the IOC has acquiesced.

The Games have run with amazing efficiency, and I believe that the Chinese people are warm, and have been generally wonderful hosts to the Games. It looks like the Chinese will accomplish their goal of winning the most gold medals and they are still very close to the total medal count as well. They have done many amazing things, and for that they deserve a lot of credit. However, these Games still would have been as successful without what appears to be massive suppression of any voice that the government doesn't want heard.

Team Darfur athletes were prepared to follow the IOC rules, which only allow them to engage in these kinds of issues when speaking to reporters. But recently a Georgian athlete won gold and at his press conference the IOC official said that no questions about politics could be asked: so now we see even that right taken away. Although that athlete might not have wanted to talk about political issues, and he is completely within his rights to not want to, the IOC has no right telling a journalist what questions to ask or an athlete what he can say.

The reason I do the work I do on Darfur is because of my experience as an Olympian. I, and any other athlete who chooses to speak out about issues of conscience when people are losing their lives has every right to do so.

That freedom was said to be implicit in the Olympic Charter, and it appears that the IOC (and certainly China) has no interest in protecting it. And that I find outrageous.

This is an extract from an email to the Associated Press. Joey Cheek won gold for speed skating at the 2006 Winter Olympics, and is the cofounder of Team Darfur