BEIJING -- Until Tuesday, Joey Cheek wasn't going to be a big story at these Olympics. His mission to make the world aware of the genocide in Darfur, to hold China accountable as Sudan's largest trading partner, to be sports world's best example of the activist-athlete, had started to fade as the opening ceremonies approached.
For almost a year, Cheek and his fellow activists at Team Darfur had had their say and China hadn't budged on the issue and, well, there were so many new Olympic-related things to write and talk about now. Bad air. The identity of the torch-lighter. Competition at last. He was coming to Beijing, but it couldn't be helped: Joey Cheek was old news.
Not anymore. Late Tuesday afternoon the Chinese government revoked, without explanation, Cheek's visa just 24 hours before he was to travel, dramatically refreshing his cause and highlighting, like almost nothing else could, the regime's tone-deaf efforts to squelch dissent.
When Cheek, the 29-year-old speedskater who won gold for the U.S. at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, initially received his visa from the Chinese Embassy in Washington in early July, "I was surprised," he said by phone Tuesday evening. "But once I got it, I assumed they knew I was a part of this. I didn't realize they would feel so threatened.
"I really still believe -- and this may be somewhat naive -- that the legacy of these Olympics is not yet finished. Some good may still come out of it. For the majority of the Chinese people, it's a deserved celebration and it shows how far they've come as a nation in a very short time. But I very much despise some things their government does."
Cheek said he was given no explanation by the Chinese official who called him just after 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and the press consular at the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not reply to a request for comment.
Officials from the Beijing Organizing Committee also declined to speak about the ban on Cheek, and the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on Wednesday that did nothing to explain Cheek's ban and declared, "the visa issue is a country's sovereign affairs. The purpose is to provide a proper, secure environment for people watching and attending the Games." But there's little doubt of the reason.
Ten minutes before his phone call, Cheek said, his co-founder of Team Darfur, Brad Greiner, received a similar call from an embassy official, and Cheek said that at least four of the 72 current Olympic and Paralympic athletes worldwide who joined Team Darfur have "had pressure applied or been threatened" by China -- through their respective Olympic committees -- to disassociate themselves from the group.
This is, of course, repulsive but not unexpected when you consider China's recently deteriorating record on human rights and journalistic freedom. As Orville Schell, the dean of American China experts, says, the country's leadership has always clamped down whenever feeling stressed, no matter the black eye it takes internationally.
"I don't want to compare China to any addictive behavior, but it's like friends you know: Why don't they just stop doing that?" said Schell, the director of the center on U.S.-China relations at the Asia Society. "But they can't help it. That's just the way China is, and they make a lot of trouble for themselves."
Yet, instead of condemnation, the official stance seemed to be a collective wish that people like Cheek would just go away. The International Olympic Committee's only response, in a statement released on Tuesday, was to admit that it had been made aware of the matter, but that "visa applications from non-accredited persons do not fall within the IOC's remit and we are therefore not best placed to answer you on this question."
Since the IOC has made no effort to ensure that China would live up to its glowing promises to use the games to enhance human rights, this was no shocker. But to see Cheek's own U.S. Olympic Committee frantically disowning him was nothing short of appalling.
Remember: At those '06 Games, Cheek single-handedly saved the U.S. team. With skier Bode Miller losing without a care, snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis botching a sure gold medal with her hot-dogging celebration and U.S. speedskaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick engaging in a childish spat, the entire delegation seemed sure to be remembered as one of the most unlikeable ever.
But Cheek won a gold and a silver medal in Turin, then gave his entire $40,000 USOC bonus to "Right to Play" -- a kid's charity in Sudan -- and more than $1 million poured into that organization as a result; with Americans smarting about their image abroad, he came across as a welcome tonic. The USOC couldn't praise him enough. It made Cheek its flagbearer in the closing ceremony and named him its '06 Sportsman of the Year.
From there, Cheek used his newfound celebrity to stop the killing in Darfur. He had to tread carefully: China was the largest customer for Sudanese oil, and the Sudan government was fighting the rebels with Chinese weapons. Even as he recruited athletes, Cheek tried to interest China in the face-saving solution of applying the Olympic Truce to the day's most horrific conflict.
He was also careful to make clear that his concern was humanitarian -- not political -- and that he was against any boycott of the Beijing Games. He advised the Olympians who support Team Darfur to keep a low profile in China.
"We told the athletes beforehand: Don't bring [Team Darfur] bracelets, don't bring T-shirts," Cheek said. "There were no press conferences planned. I had no plans for making any protest. I was not planning on breaking any rules or laws."
His reward? On Tuesday, China banned him and the USOC's response was to ask, Joey who?
"Obviously, he's a great Olympic champion," said USOC CEO Jim Scherr at a press conference on Tuesday. "He was not a part of our delegation here, coming to these games, but as a private citizen he was attempting to come to the games as a past Olympian and participate and watch these games. We think that it is unfortunate that he will not have that opportunity, but that's something between this government and Joey as a private citizen."
That came as part of a woeful overall showing on Tuesday by the USOC brass, craven and curious. Why does it seem, as these games approach, that everyone but the Chinese find it necessary to mute themselves, watch their behavior, apologize for slights possibly perceived? The only consolation lies in the fact that, once again, China has been its own worst enemy; if the regime had let Cheek come to Beijing he would've probably been no more than a footnote to these games.
Now he is a martyr. And martyrs have a way of being talked about, over and over and over, even if they are nowhere to be seen.