- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

CHICAGO — U.S. Olympic athletes had a nearly unanimous reaction to the protests and political issues surrounding the Beijing Games: It’s not their problem.

“It’s almost impossible not to be aware of it,” men’s gymnast David Durante said. “But it’s not something I’m focused on. I’ve been training 22 years for [August]. There’s where my focus is.”

The crackdown on demonstrators in Tibet protesting Chinese rule prompted protests in London, Paris and San Francisco that disrupted the global torch relay for the Beijing Olympics.

But for the more than 125 athletes on hand for the opening day of the U.S. Olympic Team Media Summit, the focus remained on their own preparations for the Beijing Games. Many said their intense training regimen and/or international travel schedule left them unaware of the protests and the controversy in Tibet.

“You do hear about things that are going on,” world champion women’s gymnast Shawn Johnson said. “Since you can’t do much in your power to change it, you learn to live with it. There won’t be anything that will happen that can change the way we feel about the Olympics.”

Said women’s soccer player Abby Wambach: “It’s obviously raised a lot of controversy for the entire world. Personally, what’s important for everybody to know is that our first and main focus is preparing to win the gold medal. But are we conscious about it? Yes.”

Wambach’s teammate, co-captain Kate Markgraf, will be playing in her third Olympics. She hopes by the time the torch arrives in Beijing and competition begins, China’s policies will take a back seat.

“Politics is going to be around everything,” she said. “The one that can’t be overshadowed is the Olympic spirit, the heart and desire of the athletes and how they will overcome adversity. Regardless of the amount of publicity focused on the protesters, it’s going to be impossible for those other stories to come out and not be a part of the coverage.”

Athletes said U.S. Olympic Committee officials did not request that they avoid talking about controversial subjects, telling them instead simply to expect questions about the recent controversies.

“The USOC has stated over and over again that we can speak our minds and let our voices be heard if we have personal opinions, and as athletes we appreciate that,” soccer player Heather O’Reilly said. “We’re sometimes put in kind of a tough spot because even though we’re athletes, we understand why people want to use this as a platform for change in the world.”

“We’re individuals, and we have our own ways to express things, and we’re able to do that. There are ways to say things and ways not to. Each athlete will be respectful of that. … Everybody knows this is an issue right now, so they reminded us that it may come up.”

O’Reilly and the women’s soccer team were in Juarez, Mexico, last week when they saw footage of protesters clashing with police in Paris, postponing a torch relay leg, and in San Francisco, where the torch’s route was concealed and the police presence was increased.

“I was a little disappointed that people are forgetting the positive things about the Olympics and the tradition,” O’Reilly said. “If there’s needs to be change in the world, it takes more than trying to put a torch in the water.”

Still, some U.S. athletes are trying to make a difference. The conflicts in Darfur, Sudan — a government with which China has close ties — have stirred some to action. Speed skater Joey Cheek is co-founder of Team Darfur, an international group of athletes who want to raise awareness and help end the crisis.

Softball player Jessica Mendoza is one of 34 U.S. athletes on Team Darfur and has strong feelings about the matter. But she was diplomatic yesterday.

“Hopefully more people know it’s happening; then, in turn, they will hold those responsible more accountable,” she said. “I’m passionate about a lot of things, and I would love to sit here and tell you everything. But I have 14 teammates and a whole lot more responsibility than myself and my personal beliefs. I don’t want to be selfish and cause them to lose focus.”

The recent protests in Tibet against 50 years of Chinese rule have been the largest in decades. The International Olympic Committee said the torch relay still will go through Tibet as planned.

There has been no support for a boycott by athletes of the Beijing Games, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said they will not attend the opening ceremonies Aug. 8.

President Bush has given no indication he is considering a boycott of the ceremonies, and the White House has yet to say whether Bush will attend.

“Coming from my view — I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 5 years old,” 16-year old gymnast Samantha Peszek said. “It would be terrible because we’ve worked so hard and [walking into the Olympic Stadium] is a part of the Olympics.”

If an individual athlete chooses to make a statement during the games, Peszek offers her support but won’t get involved.

“If they really believe in something, they should take a stand on it,” she said. “I’ll let them take their stand, and I’ll sit back and watch.”

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