This is the only valentine I’ll be sending today- no cards, no hearts, no flowers. Valentine’s Day, for me, has been bad juju for long time.
But Joey Cheek, Olympic Gold Medalist in the 500-meter speedskating competition, has given me- and many, many others whose plight is desperate- something enormous today.
He has given his Olympic Gold Medal money to Right to Play, an organization founded by 3-time Olympic Gold Medalist speedskater Johann Olav Koss, to help the lives of children in depressed or disadvantaged parts of the world.
Yet more importantly, at the inevitable press conference on the day that is the crowning achievement of any athlete’s life, his comments about himself amounted to:
“I love what I do. But it’s honestly a pretty ridiculous thing. I mean, I skate around on ice in tights, right? So- but, because I’ve skated well, and because I now have a few seconds of microphone time, I have the ability to- to hopefully raise some awareness, and raise some money…”
This, after winning an Olympic Gold Medal. At what is- at the risk of belaboring the point let me repeat- the ultimate moment of any athlete’s life, after years of struggle and the kind of effort and discipline that most of us cannot even begin to imagine, he focused his fifteen minutes of fame on others- on people in desperate need, in an attempt to help them and to use his victory to persuade others to help them as well.
His conference focused on Darfur and the children exiled from the conflict to refugee camps in Chad, to whom he is directing his prize money. Stating that “on some level it is empowering to think of someone other than yourself”, he discussed the genocide in Darfur and his $25,000 donation- because he hopes that Olympic sponsors will match his donation. His plea- and the pressure of the world’s attention, because of this extraordinary man, to the actions of the corporate sponsors- has already begun to bring in donations: Nike has stated it will donate $30,000 in product to whatever program Joey Cheek wants.
Granted that I haven’t lived through all that many Olympic Games; granted that I have little experience with the behavior of athletes. Even so, Mr. Cheek did something extraordinary today, something I’ve never seen or heard of before.
Many, many other athletes have won Olympic Gold Medals and have gone on to help the unfortunate and those most in need. But I have never seen anyone take the attention of the world, focused on him because of an extraordinary and globally acknowledged achievement, and point it away from himself. I’ve never seen anyone say, Yes, this is my moment in the sun- but these people need the light more than I do. They need your help. Look at them, please. Help them, please.
Joey Cheek did that today.
It’s been months since I’ve been able to feel good about my country- a place I love passionately- and my countrymen, of whose warmth and kindness and humor and grit I’ve always been so proud. It’s been years since I’ve felt that the world has seen us like that- has seen ordinary, everyday Americans as we really are. It seems as though it’s all the worst parts that have been on display lately.
Mr. Cheek changed that. Seldom have I seen the cheerful compassion I cherish in my countrymen so effectively or self-effacingly displayed, and never have I seen it in a moment of such consummate personal triumph.
Joey Cheek made me feel proud to be an American today, for the first time in a long time.
And it wasn’t because he became an Olympic champion. It was because of what he has done with his medal, his fame, and his ideals.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Mr. Cheek. It’s not quite a hand-knitted scarf, but I hope it warms you a little.
It certainly has me. And for that, thank you.
2/14/2006 at 07:23
Happy Valentine's Day, Mr. Cheek
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