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Searching For the Olympic Spirit

April 23, 2008

The Huffington Post
April 22, 2008
by Rebecca Novick

The global Olympic Torch relay has at various times been described as
"farcical" "disastrous" and "troubled". In Delhi, India, it was
described to perfection by one Indian journalist -- "spiritless". While
the Indian government breathed a long sigh of relief that they avoided
the clashes seen in other cities, the 15,000 Indian security forces
employed to protect the torch ensured that there was no excitement
either. In fact, no Indian civilians even got to see it except a few
school kids who I doubt will be regaling their grandchildren with
stories of the lackluster jog in the burning sun grimly flanked by a
branch of the People's Armed Police (the so-called Olympic Holy Flame
Protection Group). The route had originally been 9 kms long, but had
been reduced for security reasons. Ironically, former Inspector General
of prisons and UN advisor, Kiran Bedi, was one of a number of high
profile Indians to refuse to run with the torch, saying she was not
interested in participating in a "caged relay".

Fortunately, there was an alternative -- the Tibetan torch relay. We met
up with it at the site of Gandhi's memorial where a gathering of Sikhs,
Muslims, Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, all dressed in the traditional
attire of their calling were conducting an inter-faith ceremony in
solidarity with the Tibetan people. I nudged a Tibetan journalist friend
and gestured towards an over-sized butter lamp that was burning on the
edge of the wall. "Is that the Tibetan torch?" I asked. "Yeah," he
replied with a big smile. It was a beautiful idea to use a butterlamp,
the golden cup-like candle traditionally lit when someone dies and as
part of Tibetan Buddhist prayer services, to represent the Tibetan
version of the Olympic spirit.

Then, across the street, we met up with about 1,500 Tibetans and began a
lively 2 kilometer walk to the protest site. Many wore the colorful
Tibetan flag around their shoulders, giving the impression of a slightly
raggedy bunch of superheroes. When we arrived, I was impressed to see
that the organizers of the parallel relay had turned a street corner in
Delhi into a miniature Tibetan city, with tents, rugs, banners and
brocade. A line of yellow-robed monks sat before a giant backdrop of the
Potala Palace, while the local Tibetan population chanted gently but
persistently under the shade of the tents. Images of Tibetans who had
been shot by Chinese police during peaceful protests in Tibet hung like
macabre prayer flags across the street. Snacks and cold drinks were
served from carts, groups of beefy-armed monks, some of whom had taken a
two-day train ride to be there, sat and spun their prayer beads.

And then the journalists all began running and jostling their cameras
into position as someone leaped onto a stage and held aloft a replica of
the Olympic torch. After a few minutes of this media frenzy, a rather
harried looking man stepped up to the microphone and said, "Media,
please! The torch is about to arrive." Then everyone ran out into the
street just in time to see an SUV arrive with the large butterlamp
attached to its roof. Of course, this was the Tibetan torch. Cameras
snapped away once again. Then a couple of hundred Tibetans ran towards
us and I saw another torch raised aloft in the crowd, and then another.
I counted five altogether. Later I was told there had been seven. The
point of having seven Tibetan torches was never explained. It was
chaotic, confusing, dizzying and... fun.

The Indian authorities had been able to guarantee China security for the
torch, but not meaning or celebration. Here there was both; in the
embrace of old friends, in the excitement of children, in the steps of
the yak dance, in the shouts and chants of the protesters, in the
prayers of the monks and the tears of old men, and perhaps most of all,
in the commitment to facing adversity with dignity and grace.

What most New Delhi residents will remember about that day are the
traffic jams created from cordoned off roads in one of the busiest parts
of the city. What I'll remember is that even while the real Olympic
flame was down the street, the Olympic spirit was alive and well among
the Tibetans.

Rebecca Novick is a writer and Executive Producer of The Tibet
Connection radio program.
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