Commentary

Olympics no place for politics? Some athletes balancing sports with activism

Updated: July 24, 2008, 4:51 PM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

Joey CheekBrendan Hoffman/Getty ImagesAs co-founder and president of Team Darfur, Joey Cheek has made several trips to Capitol Hill to raise awareness on the crisis in Sudan.
There will be thousands of athletes in Beijing. Some will come to win Olympic medals. Some will come for a chance to compete.

Some will come to change the world.

Joey Cheek will be in Beijing for the Olympics. A gold medalist in speedskating, he certainly won't be there as a Summer Games competitor. Nor will he be there representing the United States.

Instead, he's making the trip as a member of Team Darfur, a group of international athletes whose goal is to raise awareness and, ultimately, help end the bloody conflict which has been occurring in Darfur, Sudan. Cheek, who won gold and silver medals at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, co-founded Team Darfur with UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner.

"I am going to Beijing," Cheek said with a bit of hesitation in his voice. "I didn't think I'd get a visa, but I did."

Cheek, who donated his U.S. Olympic Committee prize bonuses -- worth $40,000 -- to Right to Play, an organization that uses sports to help child development in disadvantaged parts of the world, is one of the more vocal American athletes about the atrocities that have occurred in Darfur. The reason he didn't think he would be able to travel to China is that many human rights organizations have opposed China's role with Sudan -- mainly, trading weapons for oil and looking the other way while genocide has occurred.

But Cheek will go, and while there, he will be a member of a panel discussion for the International Truce Foundation. He said he will be there to "support Team Darfur."

"As an athlete who has been to two Olympics, I think I can say that it's not the Olympics that are causing this problem, but it is the Olympics that can be part of this resolution," Cheek said. "On the whole, the Olympics provide a lot of good."

Traditionally, world leaders have looked to the Olympics as a time of peace, both on and off the field. The Olympic Truce period usually begins one week before the Games and ends one week after the Paralympics. This year, the truce period begins Aug. 1 and lasts for 55 days.

Cheek, a Princeton graduate who has been living in Washington, D.C., lobbying on the Hill for support of Team Darfur, is one of the faces of the political athlete. As much as he champions charitable and political causes, however, many other athletes choose not to play in the political arena.

Cheeks understands why athletes get involved in politics -- and why they don't. It is part of the reason the Team Darfur Web site does not call for an Olympic boycott. It's also part of the reason some athletes show their sign of support for Team Darfur simply as "soccer player" instead of by actual name. In some countries where freedom of speech doesn't exist, athletes can't be as proactive as they can in the United States.

"Personally, I'd love to see more athletes involved in causes they believe in," Cheek said. "You may not believe in the causes I believe in, but believe in something."

[+] EnlargeJoey Cheek
Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty ImagesAfter winning gold in the 500-meter speedskating event at the 2006 Torino Games, Joey Cheek donated his $25,000 award from the U.S. Olympic Committee to Darfur refugees.

When Cheek competed in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, he wasn't politically active. Nor had he traveled extensively. What he had learned from the Olympics, however, was he would have the spotlight on him for a brief period of time. So instead of using it to talk about winning a medal, Cheek began to think of a more beneficial use of that opportunity.

Around that time, Cheek began to become more aware of a Norwegian speedskater named Johann Koss. When Cheek watched Koss win three Olympic gold medals in Lillehammer in 1994, Koss became his idol.

"I liked him because he won medals," Cheek said.

Now Cheek admires Koss more because of his work with Right to Play, the athlete-driven international organization Koss founded. Cheek has followed Koss in his speedskates.

Some world leaders and athletes argue the Olympics are no place for politics; others, however, see the combination as a logical match. There is no other athletic stage where so many athletes from around the globe are gathered together, and seemingly anywhere the Olympics are held is turned into a political gathering.

Major league baseball players talk daily with reporters, but because most of their fields of play are in the United States, they don't often find themselves in the middle of political debates. Alex Rodriguez is 10 times more likely to be asked about Madonna than about Darfur. But when it comes to Olympic athletes, like swimming star Michael Phelps, such political questions seem obligatory.

What makes things dicey for Olympic athletes is they are often caught in a prickly crossroad. They have no say about where the Olympics will be held. Phelps, for example, had just turned 16 when then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch announced the 2008 Games would be in Beijing. Then there is a maturity issue, as well: How worldly can a 15-year-old athlete be to provide insight into issues such as the situation in Darfur?

For some Olympic athletes, their days are focused solely on their training. From the moment they wake up to the moment they go back to bed, they are either working out in a gym, training with coaches, getting tips from sports psychologists, listening to agents or otherwise preparing for, hopefully, a moment of Olympic glory. Taking time out to read the latest on Darfur isn't always in their schedule. Some athletes are concerned about such issues, but worry that they don't know enough about the issues to speak publicly about them.

But Cheek has found many Olympic athletes to be interested in such causes, often because niche athletes tend to travel around the world to compete. Their travels give them a better sense of world issues. On the speedskating circuit, Cheek would often find himself in a foreign country watching international news. He would meet athletes from around the world, and that helped give him a more global perspective.

As much as some people don't think politics and the Olympics go together, they are hardly ever apart. In the history of the modern Olympics, there have been two major boycotts. President Jimmy Carter did not send a U.S. team in 1980, when the Games were held in Moscow, because Russia had invaded Afghanistan. In turn, Russia didn't send its athletes to Los Angeles, where the Games were held four years later.

The International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from sending athletes to the Games for four decades because of its apartheid policies (the country was allowed to participate in 1992 once those policies collapsed). Afghanistan was also banned from the Games in 1999 when Taliban rule imposed restrictions against women. Afghanistan returned to competition in 2002. On Thursday, the IOC banned Iraq from the Beijing Games after the country's disbanding of its Olympic committee, which was replaced by its own people who were not recognized by the IOC.

My own agent said, 'You get involved in this stuff and sponsors might not want to sign you. This is the world you're dealing with and they're not going to want to touch you with a 10-foot pole.'

--Jessica Mendoza on warnings she received about balancing athletics and activism

The boldest political move was made by track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who bowed their heads and raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City in 1968 as a way of turning attention to the plight of black Americans. They were quickly expelled from the Olympic Village. At the time, their actions resulted in death threats. Carlos' wife committed suicide because of the stress of dealing with the aftermath of her husband's actions.

Today, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and they are heroes. Three years ago, a statue of Smith and Carlos in their Olympic pose was erected at San Jose State, where both runners competed. Almost 40 years after making their controversial salute, they were honored at the 2008 ESPYS with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

In April, 150 athletes gathered in Chicago for the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit. The summit is used as a time for reporters to interview athletes for the upcoming Games. At the time, the torch relay was being besieged with protesters around the world. When the torch made its only stop in the United States, in San Francisco, the mayor had to reroute the tour to avoid public disturbances.

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr told reporters that athletes can do "what they want to do" so long as they don't interfere with Article 51 of the International Olympic Committee charter. Article 51 states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The British Olympic Committee attempted to quiet its athletes from making any political problems by making them sign contracts that would prevent them from speaking about China's human rights issues. The plan was thwarted almost immediately as it hit the media.

Olympic athletes from other countries are planning on making their political views known. In Australia, Olympic athletes have been signing up to a Facebook group detailing China's human rights problems. Canada's Anna Rice, a badminton player who has helped raise money for Right to Play, has been vocal about China and has tried to engage Chinese athletes to support international organizations to help promote change.

Human rights organizations are also looking to the Games as a world stage for their political platforms. Amnesty International recently launched "The China Debate" on its Web site, with aims to "encourage an open, constructive and balanced discussion about human rights in China and the legacy the Beijing Olympics will leave behind."

Still, at the U.S. Olympic media summit, very few top athletes who were in Chicago were willing to make any kind of political statements. The women gymnasts made a pact that they wouldn't speak about politics at the summit. Women soccer players also avoided the subject.

As U.S. gymnastics champion Shawn Johnson put it: "We're athletes and we've worked 16-plus years to get here. Nothing is going to change how we feel about the Olympics."

Phelps is always ready to jump into a pool, but he is not about to jump into the political fray. He will be the most visible American athlete in Beijing and is seeking to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.

When asked if he believed he had an extra responsibility to be involved in world issues because of his high profile, Phelps said, "We're very aware of what's going on," and added that "being an Olympian was always a dream of mine as a kid. … That's what this year is about."

Phelps' focus on swimming is appreciated, even by Olympic activists like Cheek.

[+] EnlargeJessica Mendoza
Kyle Terada/US PresswireJessica Mendoza said she plans to raise awareness to China's human rights issues while competing for the U.S. Olympic softball team next month in Beijing.
"Unquestionably in 2002, if you would have asked me if I would've done what I'm doing now, I would've looked at you like you had three heads," Cheek said. "I wish more people would become involved, but I'm not necessarily critical of people who don't. There are different pressures out there and that is your priority."

Even Cheek admits it is tough to balance training and politics when you are in the throes of high-pressure competition. Cheek himself has been much more involved in the political arena now that he has retired from competitive speedskating.

The few athletes who did speak out, however, have been mobbed by reporters. Jessica Mendoza, for example, is an outfielder for the U.S. women's softball team. She's also a member of Team Darfur. A few weeks ago, she signed a letter calling for Sudan to follow the Olympic Truce.

At the summit, Mendoza's coach, Mike Candrea, joked with her about not making any headlines. Still, Mendoza felt free to use the summit as a political platform.

"As an athlete, I feel like I have some visibility," said Mendoza, who was on the 2004 Olympic team that captured gold in Athens. "I'm a passionate person and when I talk about Darfur, I feel like there's nothing controversial. I'm talking about humanity. To me, this is why I truly love it. The Olympics has been a positive political platform.

"I really want to go [to Beijing] and make a difference."

During these Olympics, Mendoza said she is looking forward to sitting in the dining hall with other Olympians and discussing politics. One of her goals is educating others and becoming more educated through them.

She said she didn't get involved politically until she got to Stanford. A native of Camarillo, Calif., Mendoza pretty much spent her summers playing softball and hanging out at the beach. When she arrived at Stanford, she met friends who spent their summers providing medical care in Africa.

"I came into college at 17 and not having a clue," Mendoza said. "I began to feel so insignificant, and I wanted to change that."

She became an American studies major and spent a good chunk of her time taking history classes. As part of the Olympic team, she's done everything from leading political discussions on the team bus to encouraging her teammates to register to vote. She's traveled to Afghanistan and said she had planned to visit refugee camps near Darfur, but her family didn't want her to travel there.

"Nobody's ever tried to quiet me, but I've had many, many hints," Mendoza said. "The hardest thing for my coaches is my influence on my teammates. Right around the time of Chicago, people were getting nervous."

Perhaps the biggest detriment to athletes speaking out is the fear of financial repercussions. So many companies have a global presence in China, and they worry about signing endorsements with athletes who might speak out against the country. The shelf life for most Olympians is short, and opportunities to be financially rewarded are, too. Why say something that might jeopardize that?

Mendoza is aware of financial risks, and she contacted her sponsors, mainly Nike and Louisville Slugger, before she went public with her political views. She's still under contract with both companies.

"My own agent said, 'You get involved in this stuff and sponsors might not want to sign you,'" Mendoza said. "'This is the world you're dealing with and they're not going to want to touch you with a 10-foot pole.'"

Still, as much as Mendoza wants to educate others about Darfur, she also understands she is part of a team and doesn't want to do anything that might negatively impact her teammates. The women's softball team has its own political problems. The 2008 Games marks the end of softball in the Olympics, although there has been a push to bring the sport back in 2016.

"I won't wear anything [political] during the Games," she said. "I can't wear anything out of uniform, and I would hate to do anything that would affect the 14 other women on the team. It would be selfish."

As passionate as Mendoza is when it comes to politics, she knows her top priority is playing softball.

"Definitely," she said. "When I get there, I'm going to be focused on gold."

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore and frequent contributor to ESPN.com, balances motherhood and reporting, and says she has no chance of qualifying for the Olympics. Her two daughters are Katie (age 6) and Josie (4).