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Joey Cheek Speaks Out on Darfur After China Revokes His Visa

A former U.S. Olympic speedskater and gold medal winner, who planned to go to Beijing to speak out about human rights in Darfur until his visa was revoked, is defending the right of athletes to discuss political issues. Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Joey Cheek won gold and silver medals as a speedskater. He used the media spotlight to talk about the violence in Darfur, where experts say more than 200,000 people have died and some 2.5 million others have been displaced from their homes since 2003. Cheek also donated his award money, a total of 40-thousand dollars, to Darfur refugees, and challenged others to join him. And they did, raising more than a million dollars.

Cheek retired from Olympic sports after the 2006 games and founded Team Darfur. He was planning to travel to Beijing to support the almost 400 athletes who have joined Team Darfur, 73 of whom are competing. But Chinese authorities revoked his visa just hours before his trip.

"I was absolutely shocked at the timing of the visa being revoked. I was not surprised that they took it away. But I was surprised, they gave it to me on July first, and over a month later, less than 24 hours before I was to depart I got a call at my office", he said.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Qin Gang, defended his country's action revoking the visa. He said granting a visa is a sovereign affair of one country, and according to relevant Chinese laws and regulations, and in line with the previous practices in the Olympics, and large-scale international events, China has made some appropriate arrangements over the visas of foreigners to enter China. He said it was in order to provide a safe and convenient environment for all the tourists who come to China.

Speaking to VOA at his Team Darfur office in Washington, Cheek said the Olympics are about more than just sports, and defended athletes who wish to express their opinions. "I think that athletes have the right to be able to speak freely about any issue that they want. You know, often times that may mean I don't agree with it, but I believe much more strongly in the rights of individual athletes and the rights of athletes to be able to advocate for what they believe in, be it faith, politics, whatever. And, you know, obviously that is a right that has been trampled harder in the last few weeks than I think at any other point," he said.

Cheek called on China to use its influence with the Khartoum government to allow the 26,000 peacekeepers who have already been approved for duty by the United Nations to enter Darfur. Cheek said there are two million people in the region who desperately need protection now.

Earlier this week, President Bush was in Beijing to attend the games, and he said that he delivered Cheek's "Sudanese message" to Chinese officials.

China's support for Sudan has been the source of worldwide criticism ahead of the Olympics. China is a major investor in Sudan's oil industry and one of its biggest arms suppliers. Chinese officials say weapons sold to Sudan are not to be used in the Darfur conflict.