e-mail us
Olympic torchbearer spotlights labor abuses


Leslie Kretzu held high the Olympic Torch as she ran through streets of her native Philadelphia Dec. 22. But what drew more attention than the flaming torch were Kretzu’s bare feet.

The 27-year-old social activist chose to run barefoot “as an act of solidarity with workers around the world who are consistently denied their human rights and human dignity while working in factories for U.S. corporations,” she told NCR. In keeping with the International Olympic Committee’s theme, “Celebrate Humanity,” Kretzu said she wanted her participation to represent the millions of unrecognized persons around the globe who produce the uniforms and athletic equipment that will allow athletes to compete in the 2002 Salt Lake City games.

About 11,500 people, many chosen for their public service, are to participate in the torch relay from Athens, Greece, to Salt Lake City.

“The Olympic flame is a great symbol of cleansing hostilities and setting the stage for a world at peace,” said Kretzu, who finished her two-tenths of a mile relay in South Philadelphia in 35-degree weather. She spoke of the demands of Nike factory workers to organize and earn a living wage -- rights that she said Nike has not yet addressed.

She also pointed to the Olympic Torchbearing uniform, which was made in Myanmar (formerly Burma), “a country with one of the worst track records on labor abuses and denial of human rights,” Kretzu said.

A 1996 graduate of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Kretzu credited liberation theology and Catholic social teaching with prompting her to take such a political stance at a time when millions will have their sights on the games. She is currently studying social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York as well as co-directing the nonprofit organization Educating for Justice.

The organization aims to raise the consciousness of youth about the living and working conditions of factory employees in Indonesia who produce much of the brand-name sportswear so popular in America. In August 2000 Kretzu, who had previously volunteered with Mother Teresa’s sisters in India and Nepal, lived for a month on the wages of a factory worker in Tangerang, Indonesia.

The experience helped her to document the at-work and at-home conditions of people producing goods for U.S. corporations and caused her to cofound Educating for Justice along with Jim Keady, a former soccer pro. Together they have traveled to high schools, church groups and more than 80 universities across America with a multimedia presentation. In it they seek to give human faces to the fact that “95 percent of our clothing and shoes are made under conditions that qualify as sweatshop labor,” she said.

In light of her accomplishments and her commitments, “it is no surprise that she was chosen to carry the Olympic flame,” said Union Seminary President Joseph Hough, Jr.

He acknowledged that in a single semester Kretzu “has emerged as a real leader in our community.”

Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002