Tibetan exiles compete in alternative 'Olympic Games'

By Susan Harris

An alternative "Olympic Games", organised by Tibetan exiles in India, has begun here. The aim is to draw international attention to the situation in Tibet, which is under Chinese rule, just three months ahead of this summer's official Games in Beijing.

The event was launched last week beneath grey skies in the peaceful Himalayan village of McLeod Ganj, or Upper Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and Tibet's government-in-exile. Twenty-three Tibetan athletes have gathered to compete in four days of archery, running, swimming, track and field events. Dressed in bold red and white tracksuits emblazoned with the familiar interlocking rings of the Olympic logo and the slogan, "One world, many dreams", the Tibetan competitors are none of them professional athletes — but all are passionate about the spirit behind the games.

"In Tibet we may not have basic human rights, but at least this event has given us a platform to celebrate the spirit of the Olympic Games," says one competitor, 20-year-old Dawasango. Speaking after the first day of events, the Tibetans' archery coach commented: "They had never touched a bow in their lives and only received six hours training, but it had a symbolic importance to them: their target is a free Tibet."

The unofficial games follow a bout of violent unrest in Chinese-controlled Tibet in March, in which the country's government-in-exile says 203 Tibetans were killed and 1,000 injured. China says Tibetan "rioters" and "insurgents" killed 21 people, and has accused the Dalai Lama of trying to boycott the Olympics — an accusation he firmly denies. Since then Dharamsala has been the centre of resistance against the Olympic Games, with hunger-striking Buddhist monks on street corners, and posters carrying the messages "No Torch in Tibet" and "Boycott the Beijing Olympics".

Last Thursday the Tibetan Olympic torch was carried through the crowded streets of McLeod Ganj after passing across five continents and 12 different cities worldwide, including Delhi, Tokyo, Sydney, London and New York. The welcome it was given was in direct contrast to the protests that have dogged the Chinese Olympic torch relay around the world. But organisers of the Tibetan Olympics are keen to stress that the focus of these games should be sport, and not politics.

"The Tibetan Olympics says that Tibetan people love sport, that we are united and that we are still alive and kicking," said the event's director, Lobsang Wangyal, who has been working for the past two years to organise it. "As soon as China was appointed the host of the 2008 Olympics back in 2001, we knew Tibet would never be allowed to take part. We had to organise our own sporting event to provide an opportunity for Tibetan people to unite, to be themselves, assert their identity and fulfil their sporting aspirations.

"We support the Beijing Olympics, but we are also running towards our final destination: a free Tibet."

The Dalai Lama has been conspicuously absent from the Tibetan games, which the Tibetan administration views as insulting to China and likely to damage the prospect of future talks. Last week his government-in-exile called for a suspension of protests against China as a mark of respect for the victims of this month's earthquake.

Copyright © 2008 The Independent

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