A gift of Olympic proportions

US speed skater Joey Cheek is giving his gold medal award money to children in need.

Kids in African refugee camps may never hear of Joey Cheek, the American Olympic speed-skating champion.

But their lives will be connected to the athlete in an unbreakable bond in ways no one can predict because of a decision he made moments after winning the 500-meter speed-skating race in Turin, Italy, Monday. For capturing the gold medal, he earned a $25,000 bonus awarded to American champions at Turin by the American Olympic Committee.

He immediately gave it to an organization that promotes recreation programs for underprivileged children in 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Grand and inspiring words are spoken about the Olympic Ideal when the world's greatest athletes come together. The Olympic Ideal has to do with competition in which athletes deliver every ounce of commitment and energy in reaching for a prize.

But Joey Cheek's commitment to the poorest of the world's children, at the moment of his gold medal triumph, defines the Olympic Ideal more profoundly.

The sports world is big and boisterous. The Olympics are part of its flamboyance and its often garish absorption with money. Most of the athletes we are watching in Turin are genuinely heroic. But they compete not only for their country's flag but for big-figure cash in awards and in future commercial contracts.

And then there is Joey Cheek.

A few days before his run for gold in the 500-meter speed-skating event, he talked with the Norwegian speed-skating legend, Johann Olav Koss. In the aftermath of a career crowned by four Olympic gold medals in speed-skating, Koss has dedicated his life to uplifting poor children of the world.

Joey Cheek calls Koss his idol both as a competitor and as a human being who understands a higher ethic that should bind the athlete to the fame and rewards that Olympian champions acquire.

When the two met they didn't talk shop about skating crossover and strategy.

Cheek asked the Norwegian how he could help others as Koss had done. Not long after winning his Olympic championships, Koss became a founder of Right to Play Inc., a charity focused on giving the millions of forgotten children of the world the opportunity to play.

Children at play. It's a natural, fundamental part of growing up. But millions of children do not play. They are scrabbling for food, trying to stay alive. Refugee camps are crowded with children. They are not crowded with playing fields, or basketball courts, or soccer balls. What's most visible in the refugee camps is poverty and despair.

A playing field, a coach, and teammates can sometimes change that.

The Norwegian champion and the world-class American skater talked about it. And in the full rush of his victory in Turin Monday, Cheek said this:

"For me, the Olympics have been the greatest blessing. If I retired yesterday, I would have gotten everything in the world from speed-skating and from competing in the Olympics. For me to walk away today with a gold medal is amazing. And the best way to say thanks ... is to help somebody else. So I'm going to be donating my money, I'm going to try and talk to the Olympic sponsors...."

By then, Cheek was in full stride of his advocacy, engulfed by it, wanting to enlist the Olympic sponsors, the television viewers, anyone who would listen. "Right to Play," he said, "you can check out their website...."

It makes a beautiful sound.

Here is one of America's great athletes, given a world stage by his Olympian triumph. He is proud of his achievements, yes. But he is also humbled, in his growing maturity, by the picture of need the Norwegian champion had created for him. And now Cheek sees that great athletes, by the force of their celebrity, may be unique in their power to deliver a simple message that makes the crowd think beyond the arena. He was saying, in effect:

"We have been gifted. We are here for all the world to see, but we know there is something greater than standing on a podium. And that is lifting the lives of people who have nothing and who need us."

Nobody needs in quite the same way as a child without a place to play.

Joey Cheek, standing on a podium with his decision to give his Olympic money these children, is my athlete of the year.

Jim Klobuchar, a retired columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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