DHARAMSALA, India - At the London Olympics, a young
woman, Choeyang (also spelt Qieyang) Kyi, 21, made
history by becoming the first ethnic Tibetan to
participate in the international sports event,
winning a bronze medal for China in the women's
promptly moved to showcase her victory as a success for
its policy toward Tibet, ignoring the grim
reality that self-immolations by Tibetans crossed
the half-century mark in August. Exiled Tibetans
in Dharamsala, meanwhile, have mixed feelings -
many have applauded her success but disliked
her representing China.
displeasure came mainly from the radical exiles
who advocate for Rangzen (independent Tibet); most
joined those inside
Tibet and the Chinese to hail her success. Social
media sites used by Tibetans and Chinese both
inside and outside China were flooded with
congratulations and remarks on her success, some
even calling her a heroine for Tibet.
individual, we wish her well; she must have put in
a lot of effort to reach there," Dicki Choyang,
the Tibetan government-in-exile's spokesman for
information and international relations, told The
Associated Press (AP). "But we are sad that she
cannot represent a free Tibet. China uses things
like this for [its] political gain. The fact that
a Tibetan is participating in the Olympics does
not take away anything from the dire situation
prevailing inside Tibet."
another exile and an organizer of the Tibetan
Olympics in 2008 - an event created to provide an
opportunity for young Tibetans to share the spirit
of the Summer Olympic Games that opened on 8.8.8
(August 8, 2008) in Beijing - said: "I am happy to
see a Tibetan competing in the London Olympics.
Although Choyang Kyi bagged a bronze medal
representing China, it has also shined a light for
the Tibetans, showing Tibetans' ability and
"I see nothing wrong with a
Tibetan representing any country. There are
Tibetans in different countries these days and
many have represented their adopted country. Any
Tibetan participating in any international
activity brings collective goodwill for Tibetans
in general and enhance their career potentials,"
The scene at the London Olympics
was perhaps the first time in modern history where
both the flag of the People's Republic of China
and the Tibetan snow-lion flag (a symbol of
Tibet's freedom banned in China) were seen waving
together, jointly honoring the young Tibetan
athlete. A crowd of Chinese, Tibetans exiled in
London and Westerners witnessed her historic win.
An irony was that most Tibetans praised Choeyang
Kyi considering her one of their own while she
walked in Chinese red, an eternal theme for China.
During a news conference soon after her
victory, the young Tibetan athlete was asked
questions, most of which she refused to answer to
avoid being caught in political entanglements. But
in a media statement, Choeyang Kyi (Qieyang
Shenjie for the Chinese) said she felt pride after
winning in London. "I'm extremely honored to take
part as the first representative of the Tibetans
at the Olympic Games and to win a medal. My
prayers go to my parents and every single one of
my supporters." She said she even witnessed the
exiled Tibetans in London encouraging her while
she raced. "I heard it! Really. I heard a Tibetan
cheering me on!" she said.
While her fans
boosted her image, Beijing too portrayed her
victory to the world as depicting Tibet's
prosperity under Chinese rule, which annoyed the
exiles. Chinese state-run media highlighted her as
a normal Tibetan from a herder's family winning
the medal for all Tibetans as a minority group and
China as whole. "She grew up herding yaks on a
plateau meadow, just like many other women from
rural Tibet. Singing and praying accounted for
much of her spare time. And it was not until 2008
that she got the chance to watch the Olympic Games
on TV for the first time," a Xinhua report said.
Interestingly, on her weblog she said she
was sworn in as a member of China's ruling
Communist Party in July before going to London to
compete. "Will be making a swear-in speech, a bit
excited and a bit nervous," she wrote, as reported
Choeyang Kyi comes from the Amdo
region of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China,
where self-immolations in recent months have been
reported after previous cases in the Kirti
Monastery in Sichuan province. She was born to a
herder's family and started running as a child on
the Tibetan Plateau and later was enrolled in a
provincial academy to be trained professionally
when she was 16. It was not until 2010 that she
was given a chance to join China's national team.
Her achievement has even prompted demands for more
ethnic-minority groups participating in national
sports, which over the years have been dominated
by the majority Han Chinese.
Dharamsala, the exile capital of Tibetans in
northern India, days after she won a medal for
China, there began a debate on whether they were
cheering for Tibet or for China.
Nyinjey, a young intellectual based in Dharamsala,
said: "All of us are proud of her achievement. We
love her for being a Tibetan and the achievement
she has made, although it would have been great if
she was carrying a Tibetan national flag, instead
of the Chinese red flag. But let's not forget that
Tibet is under the military occupation of China,
that's the harsh reality. So she has to make that
'compromise', but in her interviews to the media,
she strongly expressed her national pride, of
being the first Tibetan to win an Olympic medal."
However, Tseten Zoechbauer, a Rangzen
activist living in Vienna, Austria, said Choeyang
Kyi was no hero for her. "I respect her as an
athlete and I see that she becomes an inspiration
for every young Tibetan, that we can make it there
... but she's never a hero of Tibet to me. She is
nothing compared to the martyrs and Tibetans who
risk their lives in the Tibetan freedom struggle.
She could have spoken about the reality of Tibet
after winning - that would have been heroic."
Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of
international relations at the University of
Westminster in England, said: "It is a case of an
achievement by an individual Tibetan at a global
level, and hence it is normal for Tibetans
everywhere to feel proud of [it]. In a way, her
success challenges the dominant [Han] Chinese,
exile-Tibetan and Western stereotypes of Tibetan
people living in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Chinese
view Tibetans as weak, requiring paternalistic
help; Westerners see them as primarily spiritual,
and exiled Tibetans see them as victims. She shows
that an individual can surmount all obstacles and
all stereotypes to excel.
"The majority of
the Tibetans who are celebrating are doing so on
the basis of her ethnic identity and despite the
flag she has to represent. They realize that the
compromise is essential," Anand added.
my experience, Tibetans are better [at] grasping
this nuance than many Western supporters of free
Tibet. Those who moan that she is part of Chinese
propaganda ignore that China could not have fixed
the outcome of the event and it is only her
individual excellence that matters. They ignore
that any Tibetan wanting to be an Olympian has no
choice but to be under a flag that is not Tibetan,
because Tibet has no independent international
identity. Unless they prefer Tibetans to give up
everything in life and only struggle for freedom
all the time, it is to be expected that such
situations will arise."
Olympic victory was a multifaceted one,
particularly for Choeyang Kyi herself, who tried
her best to distance herself from political issues
and not to say anything that would provoke either
community - her own and the one she lobbies for.
In all this, she is worthy of the praise exiled
Tibetans and Chinese alike have bestowed on her.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor
based in Dharamsala, India, who currently is
pursuing further study in Vienna, Austria. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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