By Brad Greiner, Washington D.C. – June 2008
During my years at UCLA I clearly remember the Darfur rallies that I participated in with hundreds of other students. It was impossible to walk across the campus without seeing a “Save Darfur” sign or hear students speak about the issue.
As a Division I water polo player at arguably the best athletic school in the country I had little time for extracurricular activities. But the protests around campus struck a chord with me. I joined the Save Darfur website mailing list so I could remain informed about the situation and I sported their green wristband to show my support.
I knew that these actions carried an extra importance because as an athlete – even in the little known sport of water polo – I was cheered on and looked up to by other students. Then it occurred to me that because I was an athlete I could use my visibility to help further the goals of Save Darfur. This was how Team Darfur was born – although it took a few more years to pull the people and the pieces together to have a recognizable international impact.
I was sure there would be Olympic athletes interested in inspiring others to play a positive role in ending the worst abuse of human rights our world is facing today in Darfur. I believed that collectively, these athletes’ voices could bring about real change to the crisis that has been ongoing for the past five years.
When I moved to New York City after graduating from UCLA I was quite surprised that Darfur seemed to have fallen off everyone’s radar. The media’s focus was almost solely directed to the war in Iraq. I felt strongly that there needed to be a new influx of influential voices that could raise awareness about this crisis.
Then it occurred to me that UCLA had more Olympic athletes than any other school in the country. If I could get my teammates and Olympic athletes representing different sports to make a statement about the importance of this pressing issue with their visibility at the Olympic Games in Beijing we could take on-campus student demonstrations to the next level and create meaningful change for the innocent people who are being slaughtered by the government-backed janjaweed in Darfur.
Team Darfur came together after months of speaking with many athletes I knew personally. But when I heard a fellow Olympian speed skater Joey Cheek interviewed by Jerry Fowler about a nonprofit he was forming to help save the people in Darfur, I realized how perfect it would be to merge our like-minded organizations into one – combining his connections to the winter sports world with mine in summer sports.
Joey was the perfect partner for Team Darfur. He had won a gold medal in speed skating at the Olympic Games in 2006 in Torino. But setting a world record wasn’t enough for him. Joey donated his $40,000 winnings and then helped to raise another $1.6 million for Right to Play, a non-profit organization that used the money to start a youth sports program in Darfur. Through his visibility as an athlete Joey raised much needed awareness about the humanitarian crisis.
In August 2007 we joined forces educating athletes about the unspeakable violence and increasingly dire humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Not only did more athletes want to learn more about Darfur but they also wanted to speak out for the innocent men, women and children of Darfur who couldn’t speak for themselves. Today over 350 athletes from 62 countries have signed Team Darfur’s charter and are committed to assuming a role in bringing about peace.
But peace will not be easy. Since 2004 government-backed militias have carried out widespread killings of civilians in both Darfur and neighboring Chad. Over 300,000 have been killed and more than 2.5 million have fled their homes to escape the violence. Violence is now spreading to Southern Sudan and even more so into Chad, disrupting the entire region’s developmental progress.
While the US government has termed this ethnic violence in Darfur genocide, other countries that could play a critical role in bring peace to Darfur, have remained incredulously silent.
China is one of those countries that could play an influential role in bringing about peace in Darfur. But while China buys most of its oil from several countries around the world, it gets 5% of its oil from Sudan. This small amount would hardly be missed by the Chinese people however this purchase represents a windfall for Sudan. Indeed China purchases 80% of Sudan’s oil and Sudan uses the money they get from China to purchase sophisticated Chinese weapons that ultimately end up in the hands of the janjaweed. These are the weapons that are used to kill the innocent people from Darfur.
Right now the world is poised to make a responsible difference in the lives of the people from Darfur. Certainly the timeliness of China hosting the 2008 summer Olympics couldn’t be better to get the international community to focus on the grave injustices against human rights being carried out by the Chinese government. Team Darfur believes this focus could inevitably lead to a change in policy.
There are several strategies at hand – but Team Darfur does not believe boycotting the Games will produce favorable results. As an athlete’s coalition, we think that any protest that degrades the ideals of the Olympics should be reconsidered. Team Darfur is not protesting against the ideals of the Olympics, indeed it is the founding ideals of the Olympics and the Olympic Truce www.olympictruce.org that have led the participating athletes to speak out about this humanitarian crisis.
We honor the ideals of the Olympics and intend to carry out our actions in a dignified manner. And because the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has recently added more strict rules to athletes’ freedom of speech, which we do not agree with – we are not asking any athlete to risk expulsion from the Games to prove a point.
Tthe situation in Darfur however, is not something China can solve alone. Like sports, it will require international teamwork. Every country in the world must come together as the Olympic athletes from 62 countries have done for Team Darfur and as a world working together, apply pressure on the Sudanese regime to allow the UN peacekeeping force to be deployed in Darfur.
This is a very attainable goal. To aid in this endeavor, Team Darfur athletes will speak about Darfur before, during and after the Games. While our tri-colored (red, black and green) sweatbands will likely be banned by the Chinese government and confiscated at customs because they will be viewed as propaganda, athletes will still have the opportunity to speak to reporters in the mixed zones of the Olympic venues.
My hope is that their words will reach the masses, just as a few students’ words at UCLA led me to form Team Darfur. After all, what better way is there for the Beijing Olympics to go down in history than by being the catalyst for peace in Darfur?