For Asian American women, the Olympics reveal a stark duality
BEIJING (AP) — During two pandemic Olympics hosted by Asian countries, Asian American women ahead of the Games encountered a stark duality — prized on the world stage for their medal-winning talent, rocked by escalating the crisis of racist abuse at home.
The world’s most elite and international sporting event, which pits athletes and countries against each other, underscores along the way the harsh reality that many Asian women face: only being seen when they have something to offer.
“It’s like Asian American women can’t win,” says Jeff Yang, author and cultural critic. “Asian American female athletes, like most Asian American women in many other spaces, are considered worthy when they can deliver…and then eliminated otherwise.”
The issue plays out at the Beijing Winter Games, the third consecutive Olympics held in Asia and the second held during the unrelenting global coronavirus crisis – and also plays out during a rise in hate crimes against Native Americans. Asian.
Here, American snowboarder Chloe Kim and Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu are the latest additions to the list of Asian American women who have been the “It Girls” of the Winter Games, joining icons like American figure skaters. Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan.
When Kim and Gu won their gold medals in Beijing, it was the perfect arc on the professional stories that were covered endlessly before the actual event. Their star power and talent have made them two of the de facto spokespersons for the Olympics.
Meanwhile, other Asian American women like figure skaters Karen Chen and Alysa Liu of Team USA and Zhu Yi of Team China have also been promoted by their national teams and scrutinized – sometimes harshly – by Olympic fans.
Commentators mocked Yi for her fall in the team event, as if she deserved the mistake after renouncing her US citizenship to compete for her ancestral homeland. Others are angry that she “stole” the Olympic spot from a genuine Chinese-born athlete.
Even winners struggle to feel fully accepted in America.
Kim, who won the halfpipe at the Beijing and Pyeongchang Olympics, revealed she was tormented online daily. She says she was consumed with fear that her parents might be killed every time she heard news of another brutal attack on an Asian person.
There were more than 10,000 reported anti-Asian incidents — from taunts to outright assaults — between March 2020 and September 2021, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that collects data on racially motivated attacks related to the pandemic.
“The experience of hate wanes, and that has a huge impact on mental health,” says Cynthia Choi, co-founder of the coalition. “When you think of the Olympics, it’s really incredibly powerful to have been held in Asia three times in a row. That context is very important, and to have Asian Americans and Asians representing the United States in these games is more than symbolic.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country have endured verbal, physical and sometimes fatal racist attacks fueled by the pandemic for the past two years.
Some authors based their hatred on the fact that the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China. Adding to the mix: former President Donald Trump, who regularly spoke about COVID-19 in racial terms.
Gu, the daredevil freestyle skier who placed first in the big air competition, said she had never been so scared as when a man led a tirade about the Chinese origins of the coronavirus against her and her immigrant grandmother at a San Francisco drug store.
The San Francisco native, model and social media figure has also come under fire for his anti-Chinese rhetoric for moving from Team USA to Team China. Conservative Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson and Will Cain even devoted a segment to berate Gu, saying she was “ungrateful” and “betraying her country.”
These racist denunciations have been denounced on social networks as being hypocritical. Phil Yu, who runs the famous blog Angry Asian Man, tweeted succinctly, “Oh sure it’s still ‘go back to your country’ but not ‘go back to your country and win a gold medal’.”
The dichotomy of Asian American female existence is not limited to Winter Olympians, however. In October, Hmong American gymnast Sunisa Lee said she was pepper sprayed by someone shouting racial slurs as she drove by. At the time, she was standing outside with a group of Asian American friends in Los Angeles while filming the TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”
Lesser-known Olympians from the Tokyo Games like golfer Danielle Kang and karateka Sakura Kokumai have spoken about their experiences with anti-Asian hatred last summer.
Kang said she’s fought racism all her life and called for a broader social studies curriculum that could better capture today’s multicultural America.
“I was told to go back to China. I don’t know why they think China is the only Asian country,” said the Korean-American athlete. “I also heard: ‘Do you eat dogs for dinner?’ It’s not new to me. However, the violence was very upsetting. But violence has also been around. I had fist fights. I grew up like that.
Kokumai, who is Japanese-American, was angry to find that the same man who harassed her in April with racial slurs had also assaulted an elderly Asian American couple.
Equally painful: the silence of colleagues when reporting the incident. She said the Japan coach called her about it before her USA team members.
“It was really hurtful that it took my side of the federation so long to fix it,” Kokumai said last summer.
In July, when Lee became the surprise star of the Tokyo Olympics by winning all-around gold and uneven bars bronze, Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said she felt conflicted about seeing Lee on a pedestal considering how Hmong people have been marginalized.
“I really struggle with this idea that we’re all ‘American’ only when it comes to being great and winning medals for the country,” Choimorrow said. “Asian American women are hyper-visible in a way that dehumanizes us and completely invisible in a way that humanizes us.”
Seattle-based AP reporter Sally Ho is on assignment at the Beijing Olympics, covering figure skating. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/_sallyho
More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports