Olympic Gold Medalist's Mission: At Play in a Land of Death

When speedskater Joey Cheek donated his bonus money from this year's Winter Olympics to the Right To Play charity, his heart and generosity were widely applauded. Personally, I also worried he might wind up donating his kidney if he kept racing, though mostly I wondered why he felt such a need to donate the entire $40,000 he received for winning gold and silver medals. After all, $40,000 doesn't quite cover a year at Princeton, where he'll begin classes in the coming months. Wouldn't half his medal bonus have been enough of a donation?

I planned to pose this question when I traveled to Zambia with Cheek on a five-day Right To Play tour, but I found my answer before I could ask him, learning it the day our camera crew went looking for a panoramic shot of Lusaka, the nation's capital. ...

We are driving through the streets when we pass an ad painted on a long white wall parallel to the road. A roof without HARVEY TILES can't make your mind free the same as sex with a baby can't cure HIV/AIDS. Wait a second. Did we read that correctly? We pull over for a better look and, sure enough, that's exactly what it says. I don't know about you, but bringing up AIDS and child rape seems an odd way to sell roof tiles. What's next, a jingle about leukemia and linoleum? I'm thinking this might be the least effective slogan in advertising history ... when who should walk up to us but the very man who wrote it, Paul Sakala. He had seen us videotaping the sign and assumed we were impressed. He asks what we think of his slogan, and I tell him it's very distinctive and bold and creative, but ... well, look, is there really a need to bring up sex with babies in an ad for roof tiles?

"There is a myth some people believe that if you have sex with a virgin, you are bound to be safe from AIDS," he replies. "It's a rumor that started up here about a year ago. And then they started bringing people in to the police because they had been sleeping with babies.

"The slogan is to remind people not to sleep with babies. The owner sells tiles and, at the same time, he educates people."

I no longer wonder why Joey donated all of his $40,000. I only wish he had won more medals.

Joey Cheek decided before the 2006 Games that he would donate any bonus to charity, because "if I had the money, I'm just going to blow it on something stupid, so I might as well give it to someone who really needs it." That's his glib response. His deeper answer is that, after winning a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympics, he felt somewhat empty. He achieved a goal he had worked toward for nearly a decade, but having done so, it didn't seem nearly enough.

"I realized that as big a deal as it is to go to the Olympics, or to go to the Super Bowl and win, or go the World Series and win it, or even do something big in business school, ultimately, we're all going to end up in the same place," he says. "Ultimately, winning a medal doesn't really matter. But if you can do something that has some sort of impact on someone else, and that person can go on and have a better life, even if you never get any public recognition for it, that's something that is much more lasting. That's something that can trickle on throughout history."

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