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Lifetime achievement

Joey Cheek used his Olympic glory to give back

Posted: Monday February 27, 2006 11:36AM; Updated: Monday February 27, 2006 11:38AM
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U.S. speedskater Joey Cheek is donating his Olympic bonus to charity.
U.S. speedskater Joey Cheek is donating his Olympic bonus to charity.
David E. Klutho/SI
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We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Turin Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

Medalist press conferences are great places for remembrances. There are more I'd-like-to-thank-so-and-sos handed out there than at the Oscars. It makes sense. When someone puts a lifetime of work into a few minutes, it's hard to see an end game or a future beyond those minutes. That's why speedskater Joey Cheek's press conference was so memorable.

Forget for a moment the dissing and sniping that took place between Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick. It was great theater. People who have never thought twice about speedskating probably talked about it, but who, apart from the participants, will actually be affected by it? Until some child's life will be made better or worse because Davis didn't skate the pursuit or Hedrick didn't shake Davis' hand, the moments when Joey Cheek stood at the podium will be on my front page.

After winning the 500 meters on Feb. 13, Cheek, 26, announced that he would donate the $25,000 bonus from the USOC for winning a gold medal to Right to Play, the humanitarian organization started by Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speedskating legend who was partly responsible for Cheek's entry into the sport. When he earned another $15,000 for winning a silver later in the Games, Cheek also donated that money to Right to Play. Each time, he called on corporations to match his gift (eight have so far) and individuals to give as they're able. On the day the Olympics ended, Right to Play was $500,000 richer.

Cheek spent the better part of two press conferences ignoring his own  achievements, which had taken him more than a decade to accomplish, and instead talked about people he could still help, as though the career that just vaulted him to the top of the world in his sport was merely a vehicle for something bigger. Bigger? Who gets to be the best in the world in anything and then has the notion of looking for something bigger?

"I do a pretty ridiculous thing," he said after the 500. "I skate around in tights. But because I skated well, I have a chance to bring exposure to bigger things I'd like to pursue."

Cheek, who carried the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies, will accompany Koss to Zambia in April. "This has been like one perfect dream after another," he said. "Every time I think I'll get a chance to slow down and relax and enjoy it, another new great thing hits. So it's been great, and it's one great thing after another. It's a little overwhelming."

The Right to Play organization grew out of Koss' original group called Olympic Aid. A few months before the 1994 Games, Koss, the son of doctors, went to sites in Africa where impoverished children needed medical care. He resolved to do two things: get his own medical degree, and use the platform the Olympics might soon afford him to help other people. After winning three gold medals, Koss campaigned for Olympic Aid and auctioned the skates he wore in the Olympics to further the cause. His raised millions over the next few years but felt the organization would be better off without the name "Olympic" in it, because the bureaucratic oversight of the IOC was more hindrance than help. In 1999, Olympic Aid became Right to Play.

Today, the group has ongoing relief projects in two dozen needy countries throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Over the years, Koss' projects have focused on education, immunization, AIDS awareness and donations of school supplies, medical supplies and sports equipment for schools and orphanages. Importantly, since Olympians themselves travel on many of the projects, they use their sporting lifestyles to promote self-esteem, self-respect and the values that the Olympics are supposed to represent.

After Cheek made his pledge and plea for help, his fellow Olympians stepped up. Chinese short-track star Yang Yang (A) chose to donate the bonus her government gives her (roughly $10,000) to Right to Play. Yang doesn't have the commercial and corporate options in her country that Cheek has, but she does have the same desire to help.

"Joey has made quite an impact in the Olympic community and one people who realize they can help," Koss said. "He took his moment and gave it to others."