There’s something inevitably awkward about situating a Highly Symbolic Athletic Competition in a really, really shitty place — the 2008 Beijing Summer Games spring immediately to mind, but the World Series of Poker and that one NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas (you remember, the one that made Jason Whitlock get all, “yeah, I said it”) also work.
Of course, while Las Vegas obviously made kind of a negative impression on our editor when he was there to watch Cotto/Margarito and accidentally wound up witnessing a live-action, large-scale Hot Chicks With Douchebags demo, China — which I refer to as “Big Red” above, but which I hold in somewhat lower regard than the popular cinnamon gum because Big Red doesn’t do this shit — is kind of another level. Las Vegas is a nightmare of late-capitalist excess (I know “late capital” is a dated little turdlet of crude Marxism on what’s supposed to be a sports blog, but have you seen that fucking place?), but China is also that, albeit with authoritarianism and a total and deadening top-down disrespect for the basic humanity of the citizenry replacing the, uh, strip clubs and Cirque de Soleil. It’s also a human rights-violating moral sinkhole that seems always to have really important economic relationships with the worst countries in the world. China, I mean.
Of course, I can type all this because I’m in New York City (and thus safe from all harm unless I’m standing between Jerome James and a plate of ribs) and do not plan on traveling to China, like, ever. But when Joey Cheek (above) — a North Carolinian who won medals in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games as a speed skater and is the co-founder of Team Darfur, a coalition of Olympic athletes who have sought to name and shame China’s close economic ties to the ultra-awful, genocide-positive Sudanese government — says the same thing, he loses his visa. Less than 24 hours before he leaves for Beijing, that is, he loses his visa. Also, he left out the Vegas stuff. For all I know, the guy likes Las Vegas. It’s not really addressed in Cheek’s interview with The New Republic‘s Alex Pasternack, which is excerpted below.
Pasternack: How do you feel about all the attention you’ve received as a result of this?
Cheek: They gave me a visa, let me have it for a month, and then, 24 hours before my flight, they yanked it from me. It was kind of ridiculous and petty. And it speaks to a broader problem. They’re so desperate to have the Games look like their version of a success that they would threaten anyone who says something they don’t like. This is the story in general. It’s not just about my visa. We’ve heard tales from other members of Team Darfur whose embassies have been approached by the Chinese. If they stay a part of the team, they’ll be treated as suspect individuals, scrutinized, receive extra security, be threatened with heavy handed tactics. And this is all over. It’s not just the Beijing officials, but the IOC [International Olympics Committee] and sponsors are being complicit in this. That’s something that needs to be responded to.
…What did you hope you could do if you came to Beijing?
Be there to support the 72 athletes who are part of Team Darfur. And as a former Olympic athlete and Olympic champion, speak to people. I was asked to come to a number of forums, including one by UN officials over the role of athletes in world conflicts, and different things with members of the press. I would come to talk about my organization and share what the Olympics experience means for the athletes to the IOC officials and others.
The IOC and Beijing have reiterated the notion that politics and sports should not mix. What role can athletes play in political issues?
Athletes have to occupy a careful position. That they can do more than usual on a political level during the Olympics–that idea comes from the point of view that the Games were created to help humanity and peace, based around the idea that the global community of people who love athletes and sports believe in that idea.
But the first priority of course is to compete. That said, I think athletes have a great spotlight, a great opportunity to highlight the things that they personally morally believe. They should have the right to do that. There’s a way to be respectful, constructive, and talk about the issues that they are concerned about….They’ll do their sports, but do so within their moral structure.
What form of protest do you think would be appropriate for athletes to undertake?
We’ve never advocated any athlete breaking any IOC rules or Chinese laws. As an athlete you have a great spotlight in which to highlight crises and need people to have that without breaking rules. But it’s becoming increasingly evident that the rules don’t really matter. They don’t want you to mention anything. They’re afraid that speaking out will tarnish this image that the world has of the Olympics. But it’s a deeply ironic thing–their attempts to make this look perfect and happy come across as incredibly paranoid, and ends up having the opposite effect.