Tibetan Olympic Games

by Jack Leenaars*

Tibetans have seized upon the Olympic year of 2008 to focus attention on their struggle. This time it is the Tibetan Olympic Games which will start this week (from 22 May) in Dharamsala in northern India. The small-scale, non-political event is being covered by media from around the world. "Without any political agenda, I have generated maximum media attention for Tibet."

For organiser Lobsang Wangyal it was a matter of begging and hoping to get the first-ever Tibetan Olympics off the ground. The Tibetan torch, which is currently making a tour of five continents, is a gift from a company from New Delhi's old Muslim quarter.

Mr Wangyal is proud. In his office in McLeod Ganj, the mountain village near Dharamsala which is also known as "Little Tibet", he says with a smile: "The Chinese torch only burned for 15 minutes, while the Tibetan torch will burn for at least 30". Since 1959, this has been the refuge of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and more than 12,000 Tibetans. This is where the torch is supposed to arrive after its successful world tour.

The Tibetan Olympics will last four days and include two competitions — for men and women — in swimming, archery, shooting and athletics. On the final day, a golden medal and prize money of 1,600 euros await the winner.

First swimming lessons

Until the big day, the athletes can train for the various events. A visit to the Dharamsala Olympic swimming pool shows that this is no luxury. With a pool barely exceeding 10 meters in length, this is the only venue for the swimming competition in the Tibetan Olympic Games. In the shallow pool, the 25 athletes are frolicking like little children, many of them receiving their first swimming lessons.

This may be unusual for Olympic athletes, but the Tibetan games are not about Olympic records and world-class athletes. Organiser Lobsang Wangyal happily explains that a Tibetan sports event taking place at all is of much greater importance than winning medals.

The registration of the athletes, who are Tibetan students from all over India, is almost complete. The athletes have accepted their specially made red and white tracksuits, complete with the Tibetan games logo, with gratitude.

Lobsang Wangyal has worked for two years to achieve this. With little means at his disposal, he has succeeded in realising his Olympic dream. "When China was allocated the Olympic games in 2001, we knew Tibet would never be able to take part. So we had to organise our own sports event".

To participant was the main reason to take part for Tsering Tashi. The 25-year-old student says: " We Tibetans are banned from the Chinese games, the same way we have been banned from our own country".

No political protest

To make it all appear as real as possible, Lobsang Wangyal and his team of volunteers have copied, or creatively adapted, as much as possible from the Chinese Olympic Games. The alternative logo, including the five coloured rings is clearly recognisable. The slogan, ‘One world, many dreams' was inspired by the Beijing 2008 motto ‘One world, one dream'.

Lobsang Wangyal says: "The world is home to six billion people, so we thought our slogan was much more democratic than the Chinese one." He emphasises that the Tibetan games are intended as a platform for Tibetan athletes, not as a protest against China or Beijing 2008. "I'm not against the Chinese Games. These Tibetan Games are a positive sports event, not a political event."

Forceful demands

Lobsang Wangyal's position is very different from other Tibetan groups, which have seized upon the Olympic year to stage unusually outspoken protests against China. A new generation of highly educated Tibetans appear to want more than the Dalai Lama's middle ground politics and has become frustrated by a lack of success.

Tsultrim Dorjee from the Tibetan Youth Congress, an influential organisation with 13,000 members, says: "Non-violence, as preached by the Dalai Lama, remains our point of departure, but including forceful demands." The Tibetan Youth Congress is seen as the most radical group, which does not shun forceful protests in its struggle for a free Tibet. "We believe in creative action, not just dialogue, but without undermining the Dalai Lama's leadership."

Positive events

Lobsang Wangyal has little sympathy for these dissenting voices. His events, which also include the Miss Tibet beauty competition, are clearly the products of a different approach. Lobsang Wangyal, a professional press photographer, says:

"I try to avoid politics in all of the events that I organise. What is the use of hunger strikes, sieges or protest marches? I believe in peaceful, positive events that make a contribution to the Tibetan community. A platform for women to present themselves, or sports events which bring people closer together." "These non-political games generate more interest for the Tibetan cause than all these groups combined. Just today, we could be seen as large as life on the big screen in New York's Times Square. Tibetan athletes with the Tibetan Olympic flag, what more can you ask for?"

*RNW translation (gsh)
Copyright © 2008 Radio Netherlands

Published in:
Radio Netherlands – www.radionetherlands.nl/currentaffairs/region/ asiapacific/080520-Olympic-Games-Tibet

All photos by Jack Leenaars