Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Call for Olympians to Take a Stand Against the Genocide in Darfur

The Olympic charter contains these soaring lines: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

However, the charter also prohibits demonstrations of "political, religious or racial propaganda" at the official venues.

Should athletes follow the letter or the spirit of the Olympics charter? The question is gaining urgency as the world prepares to celebrate the summer Olympics in China in August this year.

China’s human rights violations in Tibet and, in particular, its complicity in the genocide in Darfur, are known to all but the most insular. Sudan whets China's bottomless appetite for oil and spends a significant portion of its oil revenue to buy arms from China. Protected by its trading partner at the United Nations, the Khartoum government has consistently flouted international appeals to stop the genocide in Darfur that it has waged with its allied Janjaweed militia on the darker-skinned indigenous farmers of the region since 2003.

One athlete who feels passionately about the Darfur genocide is the American Joey Cheek. Cheek won the gold medal in 500-meter speed skating at the 2006 winter Olympics in Turin. At the awards ceremony, Cheek announced that he was donating all his winnings from the U.S. Olympic Committee, a total of $40,000, to Darfurian refugees in Chad.

I can still recall how stunned and electrified I was (feelings that I undoubtedly shared with millions of TV viewers around the world) at the magnitude of this humanitarian gesture.

In a recent article, Cheek explained his motivation: “I feel no different from a person born in any other area of the world, except perhaps a bit luckier. And if people were gunning down my family, I would certainly want the world to help. So that's what I tried to do.”

Cheek launched a Website that monitors the situation in Darfur. It has become the catalyst for an international coalition of athletes determined to bring an end to the violence that has so far claimed over 400,000 lives in Western Sudan and created a staggering 2.5 million refugees.

Cheek wants to use the Beijing Olympics as a platform for peacefully publicizing the genocide in Darfur. Although not a contestant, his message to participating athletes is moving and forceful: “I sincerely hope that the newest Olympic champions not only show graciousness toward their Chinese hosts, but also issue a stern call for action in Darfur. With its significant ties to Sudan, China is one of the countries in the world best positioned to do more to stop the killing in Darfur, and it is the responsibility of athletes competing there this summer to say that -- respectfully yet forcefully -- even as they focus on their own athletic accomplishments.”

Mia Farrow, George Clooney, Don Cheadle and several other public figures have been working to draw the world's attention on the horrors of Darfur. In an ideal world sports and politics would not mix but we do not live in an ideal world. Who can ever forget the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, and how it shook up the status quo? Joey Cheek is right to mobilize athletes to stop the unending violence in Darfur by putting pressure on the Chinese government. After all, what can be “faster, higher, stronger” than the force of will to defend those who are unable to defend themselves?

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