Choeyang Kyi becomes the first Tibetan to ever win an Olympic medal

When Choeyang Kyi crossed the finish line under the shadow of Buckingham Palace on Saturday, her sporting triumph marked many firsts.

For one, her Olympic success made sporting history: 21-year-old Kyi, the only Tibetan athlete to have been fielded by China at any Olympics, became the first Tibetan to ever win an Olympic medal.

Her bronze medal win, in the women’s 20 km walk competition, was also greeted by the unprecedented sight of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) national flag and the Tibetan snow-lion flag – which is banned in China and a popular symbol of the independence movement – flying side by side, perhaps for the first time in modern history.

Both Chinese fans and the Tibetan exile community in London, whose members have often criticised the Chinese government's policies, cheered Kyi’s win. Chinese supporters yelled “Jia You” – a sporting chant that is an equivalent of “Come on!” – while Tibetans cheered “Gyuk!” or “Go on,” the Associated Press reported from London.

Reflecting the often awkward relations between the two communities, the report said of the supporters, “They could hear and see each other, but they studiously ignored each other, too.”

Kyi’s win has been cheered in China, celebrated by young Tibetan students at Beijing’s Minzu University – or the University of Minorities. “We are delighted for her,” said one student, from a town near Lhasa, who is studying English at the university. She did not want to be identified. “There aren’t many Tibetan sporting heroes, so we hope she can encourage more to follow her path.”

Her success as China’s first Tibetan athlete has also triggered calls for China to provide more support to its 55 minority groups, whose members are rarely represented in national sports teams, which are dominated by the majority Han Chinese population.

Kyi’s success story is a remarkable one, beginning on the cold grasslands of the Tibetan plateau. Born in a family of herders, Kyi grew up in a predominantly Tibetan town in the Qinghai prefecture of Haibei, which sits along the northern shores of the Qinghai Lake.

When not in school, Kyi spent her summers helping her parents look after their sheep. Her days spent herding on the high-altitude plateau gave her “excellent physical qualities,” her coaches told the China News website.

Her athletic qualities were spotted when she was 16, and she was enrolled in a provincial academy to be trained professionally. Kyi said her training was intense. She learnt the techniques of Racewalking, an Olympic event that Chinese administrators targeted as a potential source of easy medals. Kyi had to walk 25 km every day, and had to stay away from her parents for long periods of time. After joining the provincial team, she was selected for the national team in 2010.

“I’m extremely honoured to take part as the first representative of the Tibetans at the Olympic Games and to win a medal,” Kyi, who also goes by the Chinese name Qieyang Shenjie, told Xinhua on Saturday. An official from the Qinghai provincial authority told a Chinese website he believed her success would make Tibetan students “more confident” to take part in professional athletics.”

Comments on the Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo praised Kyi for creating history, but also stressed need for China to do more to support athletes from minority groups. “More sportsmen from minorities should be scouted for,” said one blogger, a doctor named Di Yala. “She is the pride of us Tibetans!,” a Tibetan microblogger named Pu Bajia said.

Kyi, reported to be a member of the Communist Party, was reluctant to be drawn into sensitive political questions surrounding Tibet following her race, the AP reported. Asked if she saw the many Tibetan snow-lion flags waving to cheer her on, Kyi only shook her head in silence.