- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

China’s last-minute revocation of a visa for Joey Cheek - a 2006 gold medalist in speed skating and vocal critic of the genocide in Sudan - is an affront to America and the spirit of the Olympic Games.

On Tuesday evening, the Chinese Embassy in Washington informed Mr. Cheek that his visa had been revoked. An embassy official told Mr. Cheek he was “not required to give a reason.” Indeed, it is well-known that China has considerable investments in Sudan and that the Chinese government represses dissenting voices. Beijing is expected to deliver top-flight security during the Games. But it is absurd and highly disrespectful to prohibit an American visitor from entering China 24 hours before his departure simply due to his peaceful commitment to a humanitarian cause.

Mr. Cheek is cofounder of Team Darfur, a group of athletes from around the globe who are committed to ending the Darfur crisis and supporting the people harmed by the genocide. He intended to travel to Beijing in order to support the athletes who share the cause. More than 300 athletes are part of the Team Darfur coalition.

China is the largest arms supplier to Sudan, has substantial oil interests in the region and invests heavily in the economy. The five-year crisis in Darfur has led to the death of 300,000 people and the displacement of more than 2.2 million people. Sudanese President Omar al Bashir has recently been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

China’s Foreign Ministry insists that Beijing is well within its rights as a sovereign nation to issue and to deny visas to whomever it prefers. This is true. But it is certainly heavy-handed to use this power against Mr. Cheek. He stated that this is merely part of the Chinese effort to “coerce and threaten athletes who are speaking out on behalf of the innocent people of Darfur.” The United States is protesting the decision and is hoping Chinese authorities will alter it. “We are taking the matter very seriously,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday. “We would hope that they would change their minds.”

It is the 11th hour; but it is not too late for Beijing to reverse itself.

The revocation of the visa offends not only Mr. Cheek but all Americans. It is only a visa, some might argue; they are only the Olympic Games. But the Games have cast an added spotlight on Chinese repression in Tibet and Taiwan - and on Chinese intransigence and heavy-handedness. This latest incident, however, speaks volumes about a nation that sees the Games as a form of self-aggrandizement.

The Olympics represent the international community in all its complexities and differences. This year’s hosts are tarnishing the spirit of the Games and muzzling America. Beijing’s move puts President Bush, who will be attending the Games, in an uncomfortable seat.

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