Athlete's medals a win for others
TURIN, Italy -- Joey Cheek is the talk of the Winter Games, and not just because he has been on fire in the Oval Lingotto speedskating arena.
The Olympic champion won international headlines and respect for his donations to child refugees from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region.
"America really gets behind their Olympians, and we are really lucky and blessed to live in the United States," Cheek, 26, told the Trib in an exclusive interview.
"I thought if I won a medal, I could do something great here, some gesture to give back what has been given to me."
After winning gold in the 500-meter speedskating race, Cheek donated his U.S. Olympic Committee gold-medal bonus of $25,000 to the Right to Play charity. Days later, he took silver in the 1000-meter race and donated his $15,000 bonus as well.
"When Joey skates, the children win," said Johann Olav Koss, Right to Play's chief executive and president. "Very few pay attention to the number of children living in conflict around the world, in Sudan and Sierra Leone. We know the power of sports and play. And we have to provide those opportunities to children who are suffering the most."
As a boy, Cheek was inspired by watching Koss, then a celebrated Norwegian skater, win three gold medals at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. Cheek eventually switched from inline skating to ice, then moved from his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., to Calgary, Canada, to train.
He won the world sprint championship title in January and has been dazzling during these games.
He spoke with Koss at the games' opening ceremony, telling his old idol that he wanted to do something for disadvantaged children.
"He said he would do something big," Koss said. "I was shocked. I had not expected it to be so dramatic and fantastic."
Cheek's donations encouraged more than $300,000 in matching corporate contributions for Right to Play. His selfless gesture has raised so much awareness of the charity that its marketing manager, Ana Shapiro, describes it as "completely priceless."
From all the foreign travel needed to compete at an elite level in speedskating, Cheek learned of the mass killing committed in Darfur by Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed rebels.
"Our government labeled it a genocide," he said, but he remains disappointed by how little U.S. press coverage the crisis typically receives.
Knowing he wanted to do something for Darfur refugees, who are settled in camps in neighboring Chad, Cheek checked out Right to Play. The charity is an athlete-driven humanitarian organization that uses sports and play as a development tool in some of the world's most devastated countries.
Right to Play funds projects in 40 countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The charity's symbol is a red soccer ball emblazoned with the words "Look after yourself. Look after one another."
"One of the great things about Right to Play is that they had this program for the refugees in Chad already in place," Cheek said. Because the organization does not deliver food aid, he said, some people consider it "inconsequential."
Yet, "especially for children, there has to be more than just food, water, medicine," he said of the effort to develop youngsters' minds through athletics. "If you can't get children healthy when they are young, they won't be healthy as adults."
"Joey Cheek, he is genuine ... he wants to give back," said U.S. skating champion Dan Jansen, who won gold in Lillehammer in 1994. "This guy doesn't have a lot of money. He's not wealthy, and he gave $40,000 -- that is a lot of money for a speedskater."
The U.S. Olympic Committee selected Cheek to carry the American flag in tonight's closing ceremonies, and he heads the list of athletes being considered for the U.S. Olympic spirit award, to be announced today.
In typical fashion, the self-effacing skater feels "like I am not really worthy. It's an honor and I am humbled by it."
"I really hoped, regardless of my outcome, that I would be able to inspire other people to contribute," he said. "What little bit I could do is a small drop in the bucket, compared to what many people can do."
Manon Colson, a writer for the weekly Dutch magazine Sportsweek, said Cheek's gesture is highly unusual among speedskaters. Dutch skating teams are professional and earn good salaries, unlike U.S. skaters, she said. "That makes it extra special that he gave the money away."
Cheek heads to Zambia with Koss and other Right to Play officials next month and will be part of a mini-documentary about the charity's HIV-AIDS prevention programs. One day he hopes to visit Sudan, too.
Now that he holds the world sprint championship and three Olympic medals, he plans to focus on scholastics and is applying to universities. Much was made of Harvard's rejection of his application, but Princeton, Yale and Georgetown -- to name a few -- are now courting him.
"It has been fun -- I love it," he said of his Olympic experience. "Just because you are working hard for a good cause doesn't mean you can't enjoy it."