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Olympic champion Cheek donates prize money to Darfur

2/14/2006 6:10pm

TURIN, Italy (AFP) - US speedskater Joey Cheek credited his decision to donate any prize money from a Winter Olympic gold medal to a Sudanese relief project with helping him capture the 500m title Monday.

Cheek will donate the 25,000 dollars he will receive from the US Olympic Committee for his victory to "Right to Play", an athlete-driven charity organization, with the money earmarked for the battle-ravaged Darfur region.

"I knew if I ever did something like this, I wanted to be able to give something back," Cheek said. "The best way I can say thanks is to donate my money to help somebody else."

Cheek, who will ask each of his handful of sponsors to donate money as well, skated the two best 500m races of his career to win gold in a combined time of 1:09.76, beating runner-up Dmitry Dorofeyev by .65 of a second.

"I don't know how I skated that fast," Cheek said. "At some level, it's empowering to think about someone other than yourself. It's right that I help some people get the chance that I have had.

"We athletes are superstitious, goofy people," Cheek said. "It's kind of absurd. I've trained my whole life for this but I am skating around in a skintight suit. It's a little ridiculous.

"I can take the time to sit up here and gush or I can do something worthwhile."

The humanitarian crisis in Darfur has claimed between 180,000 and 300,000 lives, and displaced more than two million people.

Cheek's role model is former Norwegian speedskater Johan-Olaf Koss, who made a similar contribution in 1994 when the program was called Olympic Aid.

"The things he has done for other people have been an inspiration for me," Cheek said. "It's my hope that I can assist some people and walk in his large shoes."

Cheek had the plan in mind after meeting with Right to Play leaders in the Olympic Village this week.

"I have been kind of plotting this in my head. I wanted to be prepared if the stars aligned," Cheek said. "They have got a great program and they have done a lot of good."

Cheek said he plans to visit Darfur in a couple of months and might petition the US State Department to allow more US funds for relief work.

But his plan to see the region where 60,000 children are among the homeless might have to wait.

"I heard today the situation has destabilized and it might not be safe for aid workers to go into villages," he said.

Cheek, 26, will skate the 1,000m but retire after the Olympics and attend college. He applied to Harvard but was rejected.

"I've been out of school for 10 years so they were a little concerned I wouldn't be able to read a sentence." Cheek joked.

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