Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The true spirit of Sport

This may be the true spirit of the Olympics, even sport as a whole.

An avalanche of goodwill: U.S. speedskater Cheek set generous precedent with charitable donation

Knight-Ridder Tribune

Mon 27 Feb 2006

Section: Byline: By Philip Hersh, Chicago Tribune

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Feb. 27--TURIN, Italy -- They gave Joey Cheek a U.S. Olympic spirit award Sunday afternoon, and they gave him the honor of carrying the American flag in the Closing Ceremony on Sunday night.

For what Cheek did during the 2006 Winter Games, there is no tribute too great. The long-track speedskater from North Carolina should be the lasting image of an Olympics he honored with his presence.

Winter Olympics icon Jean-Claude Killy of France, who oversaw Turin's Olympic organization, said Sunday these were Winter Games of "heart, warmth, smiles and generosity." That view of the Turin Olympics--geographically fragmented, often dispassionate and intermittently compelling--seemed exaggerated unless Killy had Cheek in mind.

The U.S. speedskater's selflessness started a snowball rolling, and it has turned into an avalanche of goodwill. His humanitarian vision is the legacy of the Turin Games.

"If you want to define what the Olympics are about, Joey is it," 1994 Olympic champion Johann Olav Koss of Norway said. "He was the fastest man on the ice, and he gave so much more beyond that. He became a hero in this world by being compassionate."

After winning the 500 meters, Cheek said he would donate his $25,000 U.S. Olympic Committee gold-medal bonus to Right to Play, the worldwide organization Koss founded to promote health and hope for disadvantaged children in developing nations. Cheek did the same with his $15,000 silver-medal bonus from the 1,000 meters.

"If I had retired before I won the 500 meters, I would have gotten so much more from the Olympics than I have given back," Cheek insisted Sunday. "When people talk about the Olympics and Olympic ideals, it is up to those of us with the privilege of being Olympians to represent them the best we can."

Others heard the message Cheek delivered through the forum provided by his Olympic successes. The USOC matched his $40,000 gift, and private companies and individuals have followed suit to raise more than $400,000 in Cheek's name, according to Conrad Alleblas, associate director of Right to Play's Dutch office. Alleblas said that could impact as many as 25,000 children in the poorest countries.

Saturday, after winning the 5,000 meters, Canadian speedskater Clara Hughes, whose Olympic committee does not give medal bonuses, announced she was inspired by Cheek to donate 10,000 Canadian dollars ($8,700) from her own bank account to Right to Play. That already has attracted another $52,000 from Canadian companies and individuals.

Sunday, Chinese short-track speedskater Yang Yang, who once trained with Cheek in Salt Lake City, said she was giving her $10,000 bronze-medal bonus to Right to Play. Yang added she would work to establish a Right to Play branch in Beijing.

"I was impressed he donated his prize money," Yang said. "Joey would be happy if I just said he is a nice man, a good person and not put him very high [on a pedestal]."

Cheek, laid low by food poisoning for 24 hours, was unaware of Hughes' and Yang's contributions until asked about them Sunday.

"If I had dreamed, this is exactly the way I wanted things to happen after I first talked with [Koss] about giving anything I won to Right to Play," Cheek said.

IOC President Jacques Rogge said Sunday that Canadian speedskater Cindy Klassen, whose five medals were the most by any athlete here, "was definitely the woman of the Games." Rogge gave a surprisingly tepid response to the question of whether Cheek's sporting brilliance and altruistic benevolence combined to make him the man of the Games.

"The gesture of Joey Cheek is very moving and very generous, but we have also seen some very generous gestures during these Games," Rogge said, citing acts of fair play in the competitive arena in which they occurred.

Cheek, 26, was moved to contribute to Right to Play after seeing European TV reports about the plight of refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. He has plans to see what the organization does for children in Africa, beginning with an April 7-15 visit to Zambia.

After winning the world sprint title this season and competing in a second Olympics--he won bronze in the 1,000 in Salt Lake City--Cheek is retiring from the sport to go to college. He has applied to a long list of top schools.

The lesson Cheek learned from his parents, Bill and Chris, provided him a sense of global perspective lacking in most athletes.

"I knew even as a young child that my parents wanted me to do my best, but they would be happiest if my brother and I did something meaningful," he said.

By the much more mundane standards of medals won, Canadians should be the happiest. Their $110 million, five-year "Own the Podium-2010" athlete funding program, begun after a poor showing at the 2004 Summer Games and funded 50 percent by the federal government, focuses on putting Canada atop the medal standings by the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Vancouver's mayor, Sam Sullivan, 46, a quadriplegic since a ski accident at age 19, received the Olympic flag at the closing from Rogge, who put it into a slot on Sullivan's wheelchair. That allowed Sullivan to continue the tradition of waving the flag by spinning his motorized chair to make the cloth flutter.

Canada's 24 medals in Turin, seven more than its previous Winter Games best, earned third place in the overall standings. It also won more medals in different sports, 10, than any other country.

U.S. athletes made a respectable showing on the field of play--other than alpine skier Bode Miller, whose disdain for his own ability made him a failure of humiliating proportions.

The United States, with 10 times the population of Canada but about one-tenth the passion for winter sports, dropped, as expected, after its record 34 medals in Salt Lake City. Team USA finished with 25 medals, 14 from two sports--snowboard and long-track speedskating, which won seven apiece.

That put the U.S. second to Germany (29) in the overall medal standings and tied for second with Austria in the gold-medal standings (9), also behind Germany (11). "Overall, we see this as a great performance, even if it has been viewed generally as a little less than that because of the high expectations we all had," USOC chief executive Jim Scherr said.

The medal wealth was spread more than ever. Twenty-six countries won medals, two more than before at a Winter Olympics. China, which did not win its first Winter Olympic medals until 1992, finished with 11.

And what would an Olympics be without doping? This one was historic, even if just one athlete, Russia's biathlon silver medalist Olga Pyleva, had tested positive in the more than 800 urine tests and 362 blood tests analyzed as of Sunday. There were seven positives four years ago in Salt Lake City, two involving gold medalists.

The Turin Games marked the first time police were involved in doping control at an Olympics. They raided houses used by Austrian biathletes and cross-country skiers, 10 of whom underwent surprise tests that proved negative.

Otherwise, the Turin Winter Games, which Rogge called "truly magnificent" at the Closing Ceremony, will fill a place in Olympics history like Oliver Cromwell does in the history of the British Monarchy--as an interregnum between the surprisingly successful 2004 Athens Summer Games and the much-anticipated 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

Turin put up with a Games it put on without major snafus. There never was a feeling the city had been swept up in its role as Olympic host.

The best way to remember Turin is through the words of Joey Cheek, who spoke of the moral imperative for champions to reach out a hand and help someone else. To the Olympic motto of "Faster, higher, stronger," Cheek added a new idea: Nobler.


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