Tibetans take to the track in Rio

Choeyang Kyi (left) and Topgyal. Image from Contact Magazine
Choeyang Kyi (left) and Topgyal. Image from Contact Magazine

17th August 2016

Two Tibetan athletes will compete this Friday and Sunday

All eyes have been on Rio this summer, with records falling in this year’s Olympic Games. For supporters of Tibet there are two added reasons to watch the games, with two Tibetan athletes competing. Look out for race walker Choeyang Kyi and marathon runner Topgyal, although both are required to compete under the Chinese flag.

Choeyang Kyi, 26, from Tsojang in Amdo, eastern Tibet, will represent China in the women’s 20 km walking race this Friday. Already well-known and considered a role-model amongst Tibetans, Choeyang Kyi will be looking to build on the bronze medal that she won in the 2012 Olympics in London, the first medal ever won by a Tibetan at the games.

A long journey

The Olympics will wrap up two days later, on Sunday, but not before Topgyal, 22, takes his place on the starting line for the men’s marathon. This will be the first Olympics for Topgyal, who was born to a farming family in a village outside Lhasa in 1994. He showed promise as a runner early on, entering Tibet’s Sports Academy at 15 and later training in Africa and taking part in the Asian Games, Asian Championships, Beijing Track and Field World Championships, and the IAAF Diamond League.

Topgyal’s coach and mentor, Kelsang Tsering, proudly attributes Topgyal’s well-being to his special Tibetan diet. “No matter where my athletes go, I will always bring plateau yak meat for them to eat, as well as tsampa and butter tea. After I feed them some boiled yak meat, their faces quickly recover.”

Protests and repression

Tibet’s history at the Olympics is relatively short. The atmosphere of joy and celebration around the games has often been mirrored by increased repression inside Tibet. Back in 1988, when, according to Chinese media, archer Dorjee Choeying was making history in Seoul as the first Tibetan athlete to ever compete at the Olympics, Tibetans were living under martial law imposed in response to mounting protests against the occupation as the 30th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising drew nearer.

In 2008, when it was Beijing’s turn to host the Olympics, Tibet was in lockdown with mass arrests and excessive, sometimes lethal, force being applied to beat back some of the largest protests ever seen in Tibet. China may have been celebrating as its medals tally hit 100, but by this point more than 2,300 Tibetans had been jailed in the crackdown and an estimated 140 Tibetans had lost their lives.

The Refugees Team at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics

Restrictions under occupation

Although Choeyang Kyi and Topgyal are both from Tibet, any medals they win will go into China’s final haul. Tibet has no Olympic team and Tibetans are reportedly ineligible to join the newly-created Refugees team, which debuted this year in Rio with ten refugees from countries including Syria, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the meantime, Tibet’s next generation of runners, along with the rest of the population, remain subject to tight control on their movements, with authorisation required to travel from one part of Tibet to another and leaving Tibet severely restricted. China faces the occasional reprimand for its human rights abuses in Tibet, but criticism from foreign governments is generally muted, with far too little being done to raise Tibet at an international level.

Choeyang Kyi and Topgyal will be sure to count on widespread support as they compete. As Choeyang Kyi completed her medal-winning walk in London in 2012, Tibetans gathered on the streets to cheer her on, waving Tibetan flags along her route past Buckingham Palace. "I heard it!”, she told reporters. “Really. I heard a Tibetan cheering me on. At the time, I looked backward but couldn't see who that person was".

We wish Choeyang Kyi and Topgyal luck this week and look forward to many more Tibetans competing in the Olympics in the future as part of a free Tibet.

Take action

Tibetans that protest against the occupation risk harsh jail sentences and can end up cut off from the outside world. In such conditions they face a real risk of abuse and even torture in prison. Call on China to stop torture in Tibet.