It's been a week since Republican Mitt Romney wrote a letter to China's president and premier, asking them to help in restoring Olympic speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek's visa for his visit to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As co-founder of Team Darfur, Cheek had lined up meetings with officials from the United Nations, International Olympic Committee and Olympic alumni to talk on an international stage about how the Games can be a catalyst for conflict resolution. His group's focus is on Sudan and China's involvement there. Cheek said they would have been the type of meetings that have traditionally occurred at every Games.
However, Romney's letter, along with one that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out before Romney's, have done nothing to speed Cheek to his destination.
"Not good" is how Cheek described over the phone Thursday his chances of going to China before the Summer Games end. "I don't see it changing."
But after news broke that the Chinese government had revoked his visa, without explanation, a day before he was supposed to leave for Beijing last week, Cheek has given upward of 70 interviews to U.S. and international media.
"That's pretty much all I've been doing for the past five or six days," Cheek said from Team Darfur's offices in Washington. "I'm a torrent of quotable things."
He's undecided if all of the attention has meant a net positive or if not going to China will result in a net negative.
What Cheek is certain of is that the situation in Darfur has become increasingly complex, and that there are still 2.5 million refugees, mostly women and children, displaced and living in camps that are cut off by rebel groups blocking or attacking humanitarian convoys. He has been to Chad, just over the Sudan border, and seen the refugee camps firsthand.
Though China has "come around a bit" over the past year by at least admitting there is a problem in Sudan, Cheek said the Chinese government isn't doing enough to find a solution. China is Sudan's top trading partner and satisfies a large portion of its oil needs from Sudanese fields. For those reasons, Cheek said, China stands poised to wield the most influence in ending the conflict in Darfur.
Cheek said the fact that Romney and Pelosi have both stepped in to help points to a larger, nonpartisan consensus that something needs to be done soon.
"This is a horrible thing that's happening," he said.
Cheek has also been denied a visa for a trip to Sudan, but he'll continue to monitor events there through sources that include the U.S. State Department.
Team Darfur is still at the Games by way of 72 athletes from 18 countries who are team members. But Cheek said their message is getting quashed right now in Beijing because at every press conference an official "watcher" will step in and say "this is only about sport" if the interviews go in a direction they don't like.
The increasingly frustrating development for Cheek is to see the idea of freedom of speech that was so important, he noted, leading up to the Games now being "trampled" by the Chinese government and an International Olympic Committee that isn't holding China's feet to the fire on this issue.Cheek, 29, a Princeton undergraduate who has retired from speedskating, won gold in the 2006 Torino Games and silver during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He no longer lives in Utah but notes, "I still have a lot of stuff there."
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