Skip to content

Carrying the torch for the Dalai Lama

Three and a half years ago, while on vacation, Steve Varon had a vision.

“I was in the pool, and I was in a very peaceful, kind of meditative state, just looking at the sky,” Varon said. “And I saw the Dalai Lama cross the sky with sound, with the Olympic torch.”

This summer's Olympic flame will travel some 137,000 miles and be carried by more than 20,000 people, and since his vision, Varon has been working to see that the Dalai Lama is one of them. He’s called business connections, met with International Olympic Committee officials, and has just launched a Web site to plan for what he said would be an international symbol of hope.

He said his mission is as important as the final goal of getting the torch in the Dalai Lama's hands.

“You don't do things about the end,” Varon said. “You do things about the action and the process.”

Varon's activism is one of the more unusual responses as the Beijing Olympics has spotlighted the conflict between China, which claims dominion over Tibet, and supporters of the Dalai Lama who want a free Tibet. In recent weeks protesters in Paris hung pro-Tibet banners from the Eiffel Tower and forced organizers to extinguish the flame five times during its run, and then in San Francisco Chinese officials secretly re-routed the torch's path altogether, cutting out thousands of pro-China and pro-Tibet demonstrators assembled on the streets. And many pro-Tibet groups, for their part, have called for an outright boycott of the Games.

Meanwhile, Varon continues his one-man quest, and the hours keep counting down before the day in August when torch arrives in Beijing.

“Oh-eight, oh-eight, oh-eight is the deadline,” he said, pronouncing the date like a digital counter.

Varon, 58, is a practicing Buddhist, but not involved in any faith group. On the streets of New York, he is gregarious and prone to laughter; combined with his native Bronx accent he comes off less monkish than forbearing.

A successful entrepreneur, he began manufacturing children's underwear at a Georgia plant 26 years ago, eventually making his company, Dana Undies, into what he describes as the largest privately-owned children's underwear maker in the world, with revenues he puts at “$20 million plus.” As far as visions go, Varon said he’s never had one like this before, but said he does have a long history of pursuing inspirations.

“When I’ve had an idea and think it's valid--call it a vision or a calling--I've acted on it,” Varon said.

If Varon’s idea is being considered, Beijing Organizing Committee officials are staying mum. They did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Lindsay DeWall, a spokeswoman for the United States Olympic Committee, said that every city’s torchbearers are different.

“Each stop has different selection procedures,” DeWall said, based on the organizing committee’s agreements with each city. San Francisco, for example, held an online essay contest to choose that city's nearly 40 torch carriers.

Ben Carrdus, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Tibet, a London-based advocacy group that claims 400,000 members, said that he doubts that the Tibetan leader will be involved in the Beijing Games in any capacity, much less carry the torch.

“It’s an extremely unlikely possibility,” Carrdus said.

Varon, for his part, said he knows the odds, but has encountered “impossibilities” before. The story of his vision began when he was reading a Chinese newspaper on a plane to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, in September 2004, when he read the initial article that inspired him. The Chinese, the article said, were planning to carry the torch up and down Mt. Everest, an endeavor Varon said immediately “registered and resonated” with him. Six months later on vacation he saw his vision, and a month after that he had a 20 minute audience with the exiled Tibetan leader himself in Florida where he explained his dream.

“He thought it was a little forward-thinking,” Varon said.

But he came away with permission to act on the Dalai Lama's behalf. "He basically said, ‘Go knock yourself out.’”

From there Varon began writing letters to world leaders like Ehud Olmert, the current Prime Minister of Israel, and Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations. He also wrote United States Olympic Committee officials and Jacques Rogge, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee.

“We wish you success in your endeavor,” an adviser to Olmert wrote to Varon in response to a letter he sent in November of 2007.

“We wish you the best of success,” Luca Willig, a UN official, wrote to him in another correspondence.

The responses were encouraging but included no assurances. Varon even flew to Geneva to meet with a development director at the IOC's headquarters in May of 2006, but he got much the same treatment.

Finally in January of 2008, he floated the idea of YouTube video to a filmmaker friend, Greg Brunkalla. Together they produced a 5-minute short. It has since been viewed more than 12,000 times.

“My daughter said, ‘Oh my God! My dad's on YouTube!’” he said, imitating his daughter's shriek.

Varon's Web site, www.humanitariandream.com, launched a month and a half later, and, along with his YouTube video, a brief statement, and a form to sign up for e-mail announcements. He said he doesn't know how many have so far signed up.

“I became obsessed with this,” Varon said, “obsessed in a good way.”

E-mail: ews2107@columbia.edu