Five years ago this week, I won an Olympic gold medal in men’s speed skating.
I won by the largest margin in that event in more than 20 years. This is the shining line on my resume – both literal and social. Every day for the last five years I am not introduced as just “Joey Cheek,” but as “Olympic Gold Medalist Joey Cheek.”
However, as much as that moment changed my life, I’ve learned that what we achieve for ourselves rarely provides long-term pride when compared to the things we achieve for others.
Americans love the Olympics… when they are on. The Olympic spotlight is brief, but when that light is upon us, it burns brightly. I knew that if I won the gold, I would have only a few seconds to capture the world’s attention. I had to make it count.
After I won, I announced that I would be donating my winnings to support the people of war torn Darfur and encouraged others to do the same.
Today the word “Darfur” remains synonymous with the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, but when I made my announcement the issue had not yet fully blossomed into the national consciousness. At the time there were hundreds of activists toiling in anonymity hoping to bring a bit of the world’s attention to the plight of innocent men, women, and children.
In February 2006 I was just one of what would become a torrent of passionate and organized voices begging the world community to utilize its vast resources to end the genocide in Darfur. I believe the efforts of groups like the Save Darfur Coalition and others have moved our policymakers to act and in doing so, have helped to quell some of the violence. I was lucky enough to contribute a small amount, but frankly, we’ve not done enough.
In the past weeks we have seen the well executed and reasonably safe vote for succession in the south of Sudan – an historic feat that followed decades of civil war between the north and south. Unfortunately, during this same time the situation in Darfur has deteriorated. There are reports that more than 40,000 people have been driven from their homes and UNAMID (the international peacekeeping force in Darfur) has been blocked from investigating and even threatened with expulsion. This has to stop, and we can be the catalyst to do so.
Five years ago, I attempted to address the injustice of the events in the Darfur region. It remains my proudest moment. Every one of us has that same opportunity and it’s vital we take it and take it now. Because while I am the most proud of my moments on the podium after the meet, it’s the gold medal that’s considered a success. When it comes to the more important matter at hand, we have a ways to go before we reach the finish line.
The chance to give others the opportunity for safety and security is the most important thing we can do in life and while I have many times fallen well short of that ideal, every day I wake up gives me another chance – please take that chance with me.
I used my Olympic spotlight to raise awareness about the crisis in Darfur. We are all capable of being better and bigger than we thought possible. All we have to do is make the effort. The people of Darfur still need protection. In the world of geopolitics progress happens slowly, but it does happen. It happens when we demand it.
Provided by the Save Darfur Coalition