China Denies Visas to Former Olympians

Athlete, journalist, and artist visas blocked -- political motives suspected.

ByABC News
August 5, 2008, 4:59 PM

Aug. 6, 2008— -- China's last minute decision to deny a politically active 2006 Olympic gold medalist a visa to attend the Beijing Games is not unique. Chinese authorities have also denied a bronze medalist, a respected New York-based journalist and a Danish sculptor entry to China in recent months -- a sign that Beijing is still cracking down on freedom of expression in the lead up to the Games.

The visa denials highlight how Chinese authorities are worried that human rights activists will bring international attention to politically sensitive topics -- such as press freedom, the Tian An'Men crackdown, and China's problematic role in Africa -- during the Olympics, according to China experts. "By denying visas and entrance into China, the government is choosing to lose face in a small way," said Sharon Hom, director of the New York-based non-profit organization, Human Rights in China. "If these people do protest and garner international attention, [China] would lose face in a big way. There's a lot of anxiety about that."

Gold medalist speed skater Joey Cheek, recipient of the DHL Olympic Spirit award, the 2006 National Sportsmanship Award, and the inaugural Heisman Humanitarian Award, got word Tuesday night that his visa was revoked less than 24 hours before his scheduled departure for a two week stay in China.

Though the Chinese official delivering the denial told Cheek he was "not required to give a reason," the rationale was clear enough to Cheek. He is president and co-founder of Team Darfur, a group of Olympic athletes who have been raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis in the region. Among the group's targets: countries, like China, which have invested heavily in Sudan, whose president was recently charged with war crimes for the killings in Darfur.

"The denial of my visa is part of a systemic effort by the Chinese government to coerce and threaten athletes who are speaking out on behalf of the innocent people of Darfur," said Cheek, whose group does not -- like some -- call for a boycott of the Olympics.