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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les enfants perdus de l’olympisme

by Frédéric Sugnot

The Lost Children of the Olympics

Translated Tuesday 13 May 2008, by Shelagh Rothero

Beijing 2008. Children of Tibetans, athletes, with Swiss passports. They dreamt of taking part in the Olympic Games under the flag of their native land. Political manoeuvering has now made them stateless in the sports stadium.

Zurich (Switzerland) from our special correspondent

Under his white shirt he sports a tee-shirt visibly from the Olympic Club of Marseille. I comment on this and he smiles saying “Oh yes, I really love this club”. Twenty-seven year old Dominik Kelsang-Erne is a table tennis player with a Swiss passport, but in his heart he is Tibetan. His mother fled from Tibet in 1961 and found refuge in safer mountains with other exiles from her country. Today they number almost 3,000 and are the largest Tibetan community in Europe.

Miss Kelsang eventually married a Swiss. She has passed on recollections of her Tibetan ancestry to her son. But Dominik, who speaks French with a slow drawl, has nothing of a convert to the Tibetan cause about him. In the Zurich gymnasium where a local volley ball team trains, he talks while bouncing the ball on the parquet “I am all for Tibetan Independence, but first of all I want human rights to be respected in my native land”. Responsible for marketing and communications in a Swiss company, he with about thirty other athletes from the project ‘Team Tibet’, is part of a group of Tibetan exiles excelling in sporting activities from all over the world who, in 1997, fostered the idea of sending a Tibetan delegation to the Olympic Games in Beijing (see below).

An Unofficial Tibetan Passport

A challenging and ridiculous idea while Tibet is only an autonomous region of China and when its leader in exile – the Dalai Lama – is not even seeking independence. There are many factors involved. For Dominik, with his unofficial Tibetan passport not recognised by any customs official in the world, it includes his dream to be part of Olympic celebrations. For him, the frontiers are elsewhere. They are in his head and his unfamiliar Tibetan homeland. So he sighs and says “Although the idea behind the creation of Team Tibet is political, it is also founded on sport. Most of all it is a non-violent group. We have tried everything to gain admission to the games but we have never even had an official reply from the International Olympic Committee (IOC)”.

Somewhere in Zurich is the office of a Tibetan Olympic Committee which never receives any invitations to the ‘mother ship’ in Lausanne. However, all this was before the ‘happenings’ in Lhasa when the Tibetans’ revolt against the Chinese authorities ended in violence. Since then, Dominik, the talented table tennis player, who plays in the Swiss ‘Series B’ league with the ‘Young Stars of Zurich’, is no longer interested in the Games. “What’s the use of sport” he adds “if there is a war in our native country and Tibetans are being killed while we are in the sports stadium? I wish the athletes would open their eyes”.

When he isn’t playing table tennis he puts all his energy into spreading the word about the situation in Tibet. He works physically –as when he competed in the Zurich Marathon last week – and verbally, without stopping. “This isn’t a boycott, but it would be good if the athletes going to the Olympics in Beijing in August would open their eyes. Perhaps they could wear a bracelet as a sign of their support, not only for the Tibetans but also for all other repressed peoples”.
It is time for Dominik to go training. As he leaves I ask him if he is a Buddhist. He replies “I am not at all religious but I do believe that patience adds to the quality of life and compassion for others is the most important thing”. Having said his piece, he gathers up his bag and leaves with the parting shot that the IOC will take the Games from the Chinese if there is no improvement in their attitude to the question of human rights, a promise made by Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, in 2002.

The dreams of Gyantsen Zatul are more down to earth. This sturdy twenty seven year old member of Team Tibet specializes in the 10,000 metres. His best time, 55 minutes, puts him into a ‘little known’ category of the Olympic Games which, every four years, reminds us of Baron de Coubertin’s motto that ‘participation is the important thing’. Smiling, Gyantsen says “For me, the challenge and the dream are already out of date”. He speaks English and in real life is a marketing expert. He is a Swiss-German from Zurich, but, like the second-generation North Africans in France, he has the feeling of double identity. He adds, “Over in Tibet I tell myself that I am not like them at all even though I resemble them physically. Culturally, I am European but this doesn’t prevent me from feeling like a Swiss-Tibetan”.

His parents left Tibet in 1963, but he visited the country for the first time in 1999. Lhasa, the capital, did not resemble the city of his dreams as described by his mother. “The countryside we originally come from still follows the old traditions but in Lhasa you could feel Chinese influence everywhere”. The discussion turned to China, a topic which angers him greatly. Like the table-tennis player Dominik, he cannot get away from the feeling that, in the eyes of the sporting world, he is just another stateless person. “The opening ceremony in any international sporting event is a procession of flags. The flag of every country is there except ours, that of Tibet. We can certainly applaud the Swiss but that’s not the point”.

At the bottom of his heart he knows that he will not see the Tibetan flag paraded round the stadium. “It is foolish to think that Tibet will be free and independent in August. All we ask is that the Chinese authorities will have entered into discussions with the Dalai-Lama” (a promise made on Friday -see ‘Le Monde’). He continues “The Olympic Games offers us a soap box on which to speak out for our cause, which has been overtaken by the troubles in Iraq and the situation in Israel. Now I simply hope that international opinion will not forget about Tibet”. While waiting, he will continue to train ‘a little but not too much’, thinking of the athletes who will go to the Games with hopes of medals. For Gyantsen it is not a question of a boycott. “Everyone knows how hard you must train for this big sporting event. I simply say that all athletes must go to China with their eyes wide open, never stopping to express their doubts or to ask questions on the state of human rights in China”.

While Gyantsen allows his thoughts to wander, Tsultrim-Dolma Gope reads an article on the Dalai-Lama in the Swiss press. Tsultrim-Dolma Gope is a shot putter. She doesn’t really have the physique, which perhaps explains why her best throw is only 10.14 metres, two times lower than the international standard. She smiles and says “I only go to the gym two or three times a week”. In March she was in Greece at Olympia when the Olympic flame set off on its chaotic journey across the world. The Tibetans also wanted to make their own journey with their own flame. In the country in which the Games were founded, Tsultrim-Dolma Gope noticed – as did the French athletes in Paris – the aggressiveness of the Chinese bodyguards. Also, several days before the trip, her email box was invaded by a large number of strange messages, asking about her agenda in Greece. She recalls “I really believe that the Chinese were spying on me before I left for Olympia and once there, I was followed discretely. It’s a real shame, as we only wanted to raise our profile. The Chinese are afraid of us but we don’t have an army. Peace is our only weapon”.

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