Cheek’s generosity sets standard for other athletes

A little healthy skepticism about this year’s U.S. Winter Olympic team was probably well-founded going into the Turin games. Bode Miller decided to use his prime time pre-Turin moment on 60 Minutes to discuss the perils of skiing inebriated, while Michelle Kwan was on the figure skating team despite a groin injury, only to drop out after a dismal practice in the host city.

Even while admittedly not a huge fan of the Winter Olympics, having never lived in cold weather or enjoyed the sport of curling, I was awaiting that truly defining American moment. Seemingly as if on cue, American media likes to bring Olympic viewers that feel-good story about an athlete who many have probably never heard of. Viewers can enter the life of a person who has achieved greatness, if only for the duration of the games.

This isn’t all bad. In an era with so much conflict and strife, it is nice to hear about human achievement both in competition and life. It is fitting then that the feel-good American story from the 2006 Turin Olympics is that of speed skater Joey Cheek.

When Cheek was only 14 years old, he watched the Norwegian great Johann Olav Koss win three gold medals in Lillehammer and was inspired to follow in Koss’ footsteps. An inline skater, Joey Cheek won the 500-meter race Monday with a combined two-race time of 69.76 seconds. In a sport with where hundredths of a second matter, Cheek’s win by .65 seconds was huge.

But Cheek’s story didn’t end with his race. Rather, it began at the news conference following his win. He could have used the time to tout his physical prowess, thank his sponsors and gloat. But when the time came for questions, Cheek asked to make a statement.

He told those gathered, “I always felt like if I ever did something big like this I wanted to be prepared to give something back.”

His idea of giving back is to donate the $25,000 bonus he received from the U.S. Olympic Committee to Right to Play, a charitable, athlete-driven program whose president is none other than Koss.

Right to Play’s mission is to improve children’s lives in disadvantaged countries through sport. Cheek’s particular passion is to bring hope and aid to those in the Darfur region in Sudan and refugees who have fled to Chad. He utilized his moment of glory to challenge sponsors and anyone listening to help contribute to the cause to help a region that desperately needs it.

This all brings up a good point. Why hasn’t more international attention been placed on Darfur? It is probable that many Americans would be challenged to find this region of Sudan on the map. You would think since President Bush likes to tout bringing freedom and democracy to the world that Darfur would be a good place to start.

Since 2003, the government-supported janjaweed militias have been raping, displacing and slaughtering black African civilians. According to the Associated Press, some two million people have been displaced, and the United Nations estimates that 180,000 have been killed. So how has the United States responded? It cut $50 million in support of the African peacekeepers in Darfur, despite the fact that our president has labeled what is occurring there as genocide.

But despite government inaction, organizations such as Right to Play are doing their part to publicize the atrocities and seek financial help from citizens and corporate sponsors alike. With the maturity and selflessness that 26-year-old Cheek showed at his press conference, there is little doubt he will succeed when he retires from speed skating and starts college in the fall.

Putting his time on the ice in perspective he remarked, “I’ve seen the entire world, and I’ve met amazing friends. But it’s honestly a pretty ridiculous thing. I mean, I skate around on ice in tights, right?”

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.