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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

The dream of Team Tibet

December 3, 2007

By Brendan Connor in Brussels
Al Jazeera
Video report of Al Jazeera on Team Tibet at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiQ5GFg3pqM
It's a sunny afternoon, and like many football fields around the world,
there are a couple of teams getting set to kick it about.

Here, the sides are made up of lads of Tibetan heritage, and they are
playing in a tournament.

They have hopes of winning, but the main reason they are there is to
spotlight their cause.

And that cause is an independent Tibet, free from China's rule, and
perhaps someday, a place in the Olympics under their own flag.

China took over Tibet in 1959, and many Tibetans, including their
spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled across the Himalayas and took
refuge in India.


 From there many left for far-flung places to study and work, and today
the Tibetan diaspora encompasses thousands of people who have settled in
Europe, the UK, America, Canada, and elsewhere.

The children of those Tibetans who left have grown up in their adopted
countries, playing sport as any Swiss, German, British or American youth
would do, but they say there remains a longing within them.

It's a longing to have their former country recognised, and someday
given autonomy from China, and maybe one day competing for their former
nation.

Pema Yoko, a young woman of Japanese and Tibetan heritage who grew up in
the UK, is an accomplished table tennis player.

Yoko is part of a newly-formed organisation called 'Team Tibet', which
is a group of leading athletes from various countries who are putting
faith in, and pushing the agenda of, the Tibet freedom movement.

"I've never been to Tibet, but it's within me. So is the pain of growing
up in exile, and hearing the stories of my people escaping across the
mountains all those years ago, and never being allowed to return," Yoko
said.

"Growing up in England, I have had no icons to look up to. If we were
able to ever compete at an Olympics, I think Tibetans would feel so, so
represented. I think it would be great."

Lobbying the IOC

The 'Tibetans in exile', as they call themselves, recently began taking
official steps to pursue this seemingly impossible dream, beginning with
the formation of a National Olympic Committee and the presenting of
their bylaws to the IOC offices in Lausanne.

Tethong Wangpo is the Tibetan NOC president, and says if Team Tibet is
not allowed to compete under its own flag, then there are alternatives.

"There have been precedents over the years where athletes from countries
without nation-status have been allowed to march under the flag of the
IOC," Wangpo said.

"It's been done for Palestine, Hong Kong, Taiwan and others. We hope the
IOC will help us in our quest."

To think that any kind of lobbying effort for a free Tibet, regardless
of how impassioned, would sway the Chinese in time for Beijing 2008, may
seem an impossible dream, and that was emphasised to Team Tibet during
their visit to the European parliament.

"Of course I sympathise, and of course it has been discussed by us in
Lausanne," said Pal Schmitt, an IOC member from Hungary, who attended
the EU session in Brussels where Team Tibet made its presentation.

"But, I am afraid this cannot happen. We, as the IOC are not a political
group. We are meant to be free of politics, and we cannot interfere in
government dealings.

"This is a matter for the United Nations. When, and if Tibet, are
recognised as a nation by the UN, then we can consider it further. Until
then, it's up to China, and it's an internal matter for them."

'Inclusion and universality'

Peter Stastny, a legendary ice hockey star in the former Czechoslovakia,
disagrees, after he finally realised his dream of playing in the
Olympics for his native Slovakia because the political landscape
suddenly changed.

"I never thought as a boy growing up, that I would ever see it, but then
it happened out of the blue," Stastny said with a smile.

"The Soviet rule was over, we parted ways amicably with the Czech
Republic, and there I was in 1994, marching in a stadium in Lillehammer,
Norway at the Olympic opening ceremonies, with the Slovak flag.

"This IOC stance is just a set of rules. Rules can be changed and
modified and they should. They need to reflect evolution and progress
and change. The Olympics should be a leader in this. The Olympics is
supposed to be about inclusion and universality."

The Tibetan athletes are a spirited, driven group and they say they are
prepared for setbacks and initial refusal, but they vow to continue
their mission.

"It's our dream to march in an Olympic opening ceremony, and to look up
and see our Tibetan flag," said Dominik Kelsang, a world-class table
tennis player from Switzerland.

"It would be so important for us athletes, but even more for the
significance of what it would represent. It would tell the world that
our country and our people are still here."

Raising the profile

As the day ended, the people attending the session of the inter group of
the European parliament filed out, and were handed literature and
souvenir scarves by the Tibetans.

"This was a big day for us, and it's so important getting support from
parliamentarians like this," said Kelsang Gope, a senior organiser for
Team Tibet.

"Not only will this will go a long way to help raise the profile of our
movement, but we think and hope that China will see it as an
opportunity. They are such a world power now, and emerging as a huge
force on the world economic scene, they could see this as a bridge they
could use.

"Maybe if they allowed us in the Olympics, they could earn peoples'
respect on the human rights front. They could show that their Olympic
slogan 'One world, one dream' is more than just a slogan."

As the Tibetan group packs up and disperses, Pema Yoko had a parting
chat with two Buddhist Monks who live in Brussels and came to show
support and to be part of a Tibetan display.

"I think it was a great day. Very inspiring. I hope that we made
progress, and that someday, maybe if not in Beijing in 2008, then in
London in 2012, we can be there," said Yoko.

"We want Team Tibet to be a reality."

Then it was time for her to depart for the Brussels train station and
the journey back to England, where she will await the next call to take
up the cause, and to again speak up for the dream of Team Tibet.
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