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LUSAKA, Zambia -- When speedskater Joey Cheek donated his bonus money from this year's Winter Olympics to the Right To Play charity, his heart and generosity were widely applauded. Personally, I also worried he might wind up donating his kidney if he kept racing, though mostly I wondered why he felt such a need to donate the entire $40,000 he received for winning gold and silver medals. After all, $40,000 doesn't quite cover a year at Princeton, where he'll begin classes in the coming months. Wouldn't half his medal bonus have been enough of a donation?

An unconventional billboard in Lusaka attempts to deliver Zambia's most important message.

I planned to pose this question when I traveled to Zambia with Cheek on a five-day Right To Play tour, but I found my answer before I could ask him, learning it the day our camera crew went looking for a panoramic shot of Lusaka, the nation's capital. ...

We are driving through the streets when we pass an ad painted on a long white wall parallel to the road. A roof without HARVEY TILES can't make your mind free the same as sex with a baby can't cure HIV/AIDS. Wait a second. Did we read that correctly? We pull over for a better look and, sure enough, that's exactly what it says. I don't know about you, but bringing up AIDS and child rape seems an odd way to sell roof tiles. What's next, a jingle about leukemia and linoleum? I'm thinking this might be the least effective slogan in advertising history ... when who should walk up to us but the very man who wrote it, Paul Sakala. He had seen us videotaping the sign and assumed we were impressed. He asks what we think of his slogan, and I tell him it's very distinctive and bold and creative, but ... well, look, is there really a need to bring up sex with babies in an ad for roof tiles?

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"There is a myth some people believe that if you have sex with a virgin, you are bound to be safe from AIDS," he replies. "It's a rumor that started up here about a year ago. And then they started bringing people in to the police because they had been sleeping with babies.

"The slogan is to remind people not to sleep with babies. The owner sells tiles and, at the same time, he educates people."

I no longer wonder why Joey donated all of his $40,000. I only wish he had won more medals.

****

Joey Cheek decided before the 2006 Games that he would donate any bonus to charity, because "if I had the money, I'm just going to blow it on something stupid, so I might as well give it to someone who really needs it." That's his glib response. His deeper answer is that, after winning a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympics, he felt somewhat empty. He achieved a goal he had worked toward for nearly a decade, but having done so, it didn't seem nearly enough.


The consequences of the AIDS epidemic are everywhere in Zambia.

"I realized that as big a deal as it is to go to the Olympics, or to go to the Super Bowl and win, or go the World Series and win it, or even do something big in business school, ultimately, we're all going to end up in the same place," he says. "Ultimately, winning a medal doesn't really matter. But if you can do something that has some sort of impact on someone else, and that person can go on and have a better life, even if you never get any public recognition for it, that's something that is much more lasting. That's something that can trickle on throughout history."

Cheek's donation echoed that of his speedskating hero, Johann Olav Koss. At Lillehammer in 1994, Koss donated his performance bonus to Olympic Aid. That was just a beginning for Koss, who wound up traveling the world for UNICEF, seeing firsthand the effects of extreme poverty and war. He noticed when people are dealing with matters of life and death, the children often are neglected and having a soccer field or a volleyball net usually isn't a priority. Yet Koss knew how important sports were in his own development as a person and was distressed these children had no athletic outlet. He decided to change that, and the Right To Play organization was developed out of Olympic Aid. Right To Play goes into poor and war-torn countries, setting up athletic opportunities, providing health education, building confidence, and teaching the residents to be coaches and role models. It has sites in 23 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zambia. The organization's credo -- "Look after yourself, look after one another" -- is so central to its mission that it's printed on their distinctive red soccer balls.

"We're trying to give the children a better life," Koss told me in Torino. "We're trying to help them be healthier and safer. We want to develop children to become great athletes and not become soldiers, rebels and terrorists."

During a lunch with Cheek in Torino's Olympic Village, Koss asked the American to consider donating any bonus money to Right To Play. Cheek not only did so, earmarking it for the organization's work in Darfur, but in his postrace news conference, he challenged corporations to match his donations. Enough have responded that he has raised more than $600,000 for the organization.


Despite the 22-hour trip, Joey Cheek, right, and Jenny Thompson had no time for jet lag.

Cheek's donation was impressive -- top speedskaters make about $50,000 in non-Olympic years -- but equally impressive is his reaction when he and swimmer Jenny Thompson reach Zambia. They have flown 22 hours, counting a refueling stop in Senegal and a change of planes in Johannesburg, and when they finally clear customs in Lusaka, they learn their luggage has been lost. Cheek hasn't been in bed for two days (he took a red-eye from Utah to New York the night before the flight to Africa); he has to wear his same Right To Play T-shirt another day; there's no guarantee he'll ever see his suitcase again; and, on top of that, he doesn't have any deodorant. This would provide 30 minutes of rage for "Around the Horn," yet neither he nor Thompson shows the slightest irritation. Instead, they happily greet strangers and record their arrival on video. When a Right To Play organizer asks whether they should start the next morning at 7 o'clock as scheduled, or later to give them a chance to sleep, Cheek responds enthusiastically, "Let's start at 7."

I don't think this is how Terrell Owens would have responded. Or myself, for that matter.

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