Commentary

U.S. decathlete Boyles: 'I have a responsibility right now to speak'

Updated: August 7, 2008, 10:57 AM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

On Tuesday, Chris Boyles was angry and confused.

The only times the 28-year-old U.S. decathlete could recall finding himself in trouble were when he stole a jawbreaker when he was a youngster and when he was caught speeding as a teenager. He couldn't believe either of those crimes would have put him on the Chinese government's no-visa list.

On Wednesday, however, it all made sense.

As Boyles watched the morning news, he heard a report that U.S. Olympic gold medalist speedskater Joey Cheek had his visa revoked by the Chinese government. That's when Boyles realized why his visa was revoked as well. Like Cheek, Boyles is part of Team Darfur, an athlete-driven group that has advocated for an Olympic truce and peace in Darfur, a war-torn region of Sudan. China has been attacked worldwide by various human-rights groups and advocacy organizations for supplying Sudan with weapons in exchange for oil and turning a blind eye to the genocide in Darfur.

"My emotions [Tuesday] are totally different than they are today," Boyles said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Before, I was angry and confused. Now, I feel like I was put into the position. I feel like I have a responsibility right now to speak."

Is he angry now?

"No way," he said.

Unlike Cheek, who emerged as the U.S. Olympic Committee's sportsman of the year after he donated his Olympic prize money from the 2006 Games in Torino to help children in Darfur. Later, he co-founded Team Darfur. Boyles was not nearly as politically active. In fact, he didn't even join Team Darfur until this summer and was not a prominent member.

"A few months ago, Team Darfur started to round up people for this cause," Boyles said. "I didn't educate myself as much as I probably should've, but I thought it was a good cause."

Boyles, who has struggled with an ankle injury, didn't qualify for the Beijing Games in the decathlon. The injury forced him to withdraw from last month's track and field Olympic trials.

He is, however, close friends with fellow decathlete Tom Pappas and Dr. Curt Draeger, who works with U.S. decathletes. Pappas and Draeger arranged for Boyles to go to Beijing as a guest. In fact, Boyles said Draeger had already paid for Boyles' plane ticket to China. Boyles had been responsible for getting his own tickets to events.

During his intended visit to China, Boyles had planned to meet with Cheek and other Team Darfur athletes. The two had talked about meeting there, and Boyles has a link to the Team Darfur Web site on his own Web page. Cheek, who was besieged with interview requests, was unavailable for comment Wednesday, according to Martha Heinemann Bixby, director of Team Darfur.

Cheek had been notified less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to fly to Beijing that his visa had been revoked. He had planned on flying to China on Wednesday. Cheek's agent, Patrick Quinn, told ESPN.com he did not think chances were good for Cheek's visa to be reinstated.

Cheek told ESPN.com last month he was surprised that he received a visa. He was not going to Beijing in an official Olympic capacity but planned to support Team Darfur athletes and seek an Olympic truce.

Boyles' ordeal has been a little bit longer and more bizarre, considering he has not been at the forefront of Team Darfur's efforts. On July 24, Boyles received a phone call saying his visa had been denied. After a bit of confusion, he was informed that his visa had been approved and he would receive travel information in the mail. Sure enough, a couple of days later, he received his passport and visa. He was set to leave Aug. 14.

All was good.

Four days later, he was informed his visa was no longer valid. His travel agent advised him to go to the Chinese consulate's office in Washington to clear up the matter in person. Normally, this wouldn't have been too much of a hardship. Boyles lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., about a five-hour drive from the nation's capital.

Problem was, he was competing in the Thorpe Cup in Manhattan, Kan., when he found out his visa was invalid. So he flew back from Kansas to Winston-Salem on Monday at 5 a.m., then drove to his parents' home in central Pennsylvania. Fatigued from travel and competition, he drove to Washington on Tuesday. He spent virtually the entire day waiting, only to be told that nothing could be done.

"A woman at the Chinese consulate's office told me she couldn't tell me why," Boyles said.

So a frustrated Boyles decided he had given it his best shot, but Beijing just wouldn't be in the cards for him. The travel agency told Boyles that he was only the second person they had worked with in 20 years to have a visa denied by China.

Boyles e-mailed Cheek and told him about the visa problems and that they couldn't meet in Beijing.

"Then this morning, I saw the news about Joey and it all clicked," Boyles said. "I'm sure somehow we were linked."

When asked if he thought the visa rejections and revocations might dissuade other athletes from becoming involved in political causes in the future, Boyles admitted he wasn't sure how others would react.

"I don't know," he said. "I suppose it might, but I would hope it wouldn't."

According to Team Darfur's Heinemann Bixby, at the beginning of the summer, four athletes had requested that their names be removed from the organization's Web site because they feared safety problems once they arrived in Beijing. Heinemann Bixby declined to name the athletes or which country or countries they represented, but acknowledged that their governing bodies had "gotten calls from the Chinese government, and they felt their athletes might be treated as troublemakers." Other than that, no other problems had arisen, Heinemann Bixby said.

The Team Darfur Web site does list names of athlete supporters and members, but there also are generic listings such as "softball player" because some athletes did not want to be so public, Cheek told ESPN.com last month.

Now there is a last-minute push by American leaders, including House speaker Nancy Pelosi and some within the Bush administration, to get Cheek's visa reinstated as well as visas for citizens such as Boyles.

"I call on President Bush to secure the entry of Joey Cheek and other U.S. citizens who have been barred from attending the Olympics because of their beliefs, advocacy for the people in Darfur and human rights in China and Tibet," Pelosi said in a statement. "It is essential that President Bush show leadership in promoting democracy, freedom and human rights during his visit to China."

President Bush has said he will attend the opening ceremonies.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. Olympic athletes selected Lopez Lomong, a refugee from Sudan and a track and field competitor, to be America's flag bearer during the opening ceremonies Friday night. Being voted as the flag bearer is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on an Olympic athlete. Cheek was selected as the flag bearer for the closing ceremonies in Torino.

"It's clear that the athletes really care about this stuff," Heinemann Bixby said. "The thing to me is that so much effort has been made now in getting Joey a visa, but I think he'd rather try to secure peace in Darfur. More energy should be put into that."

As for Boyles, he'll try to piece everything together. He's still battling an ankle injury and trying to figure out his future as an Olympian, and he's now thrown into the fray as a political athlete.

"All you can do is shake your head," Boyles said. "It's just a different world over there."

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore and a 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).

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