homeland with an iron fist for six decades.
But this was exceptional.
Because, apparently for the first time at an Olympics, the athlete was one of them, a Tibetan.
Standing apart but, just this once, both wanting the same thing, groups of Chinese supporters shouted "Jia You!" while the Tibetans yelled "Gyuk!" -- both meaning, "Go on!"
The Chinese waved their red flags. The Tibetans waved the flag of Tibet that is banned in China, with a bright yellow sun rising over a snow-clad mountain.
They could hear and see each other, but they studiously ignored each other, too.
The athlete -- Qieyang Shenjie to the Chinese, Choeyang Kyi for the Tibetans -- could hear the yells of encouragement.
Russia's gold medalist Yelena Lashmanov (C), Russia's silver medalist Olga Kaniskina (L) and China's bronze medalist Qieyang Shenjie pose on the podium of the women's 20km walk at the athletics event of the London 2012 Olympic Gamesin London. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BUREAU
But she kept her head down and concentrated on not putting a foot wrong. It seemed a fitting metaphor for a Tibetan competing for China, one smart enough not to get sucked into the politics that have swirled around her Olympic participation.
Not only did Qieyang make history for Tibetans, she won a medal, too -- bronze in the women's 20-kilometer race walk Saturday.
She beamed when she crossed the finish line, a picture of delight. If she felt discomfort at all as a Tibetan in Chinese colors, she didn't show it.
"I'm extremely honored to take part as the first representative of the Tibetans at the Olympic Games and to win a medal," she said.
She said she heard Tibetans encouraging her along the route that went past the residence of Queen Elizabeth II.
"I heard it! Really. I heard a Tibetan cheering me on. At the time, I looked backward but couldn't see who that person was," Qieyang said.
But she looked alarmed when asked if she saw the Tibetan flags, shaking her head and refusing to answer. Because Tibet is ruled by China, it does not have its own team or athletes at the Olympics or other international competitions, like the football World Cup.
So, for Tibetans, this was the first time they'd been able to cheer on one of their own. But it also was a shock to some of them to see Qieyang striding past them in Chinese red. "Am I really cheering for Tibet or China?" wondered Ugyen Choephell, who said his parents fled Tibet in the 1960s to India, where he was born.
Still, he yelled "Choeyang Gyuk!" and was thrilled when she went past.
"Great, really. Very emotional," he said. "History in the making."
If there was another Tibetan at previous Olympics, history has forgotten them. In China, the government-run Xinhua News Agency and other media said Qieyang was the first Tibetan to make a Chinese Olympic team.
Olympic historian Bill Mallon said Tibet has never fielded an Olympic team and that he and other Olympic experts he consulted weren't aware of any previous Tibetan Olympian.
The Tibetan government in exile in India said likewise.
"As an individual, we wish her well," said Dicki Choyang, the exiled administration's minister for information and international relations. "She must have put in a lot of effort to reach there. But we are sad that she cannot represent a free Tibet."
"China uses things like this for their political gain. The fact that a Tibetan is participating in the Olympics does not take away anything from the dire situation prevailing inside Tibet," Choyang added.