Across two pandemic Olympics set in Asian countries, Asian American women facing the Games have encountered a whiplashing duality — prized on the global stage for their medal-winning talent, buffeted by the escalating 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 crude reality that many Asian women face: of only being seen when they have something to offer.
“It’s like Asian American women can’t win,” says Jeff Yang, an author and cultural critic. “Asian American female athletes, like most Asian American women in many other spaces, are seen as worthy when they can deliver … and then disposed of otherwise.”
The issue is playing out at the Beijing Winter Games, the third straight Olympics set in Asia and the second held during the unrelenting global coronavirus crisis — and playing out, too, during a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Here, US snowboarder Chloe Kim and China’s freestyle skier Eileen Gu are the latest additions to the list of American women of Asian descent who have been “It Girls” of the Winter Games, joining icons like American figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan.
When Kim and Gu earned their gold medals in Beijing, it was the perfect bow on professional narratives that have been covered incessantly leading up to the current event. Their star power and talent made them two of the de facto spokeswomen for the Olympics.
Meanwhile, other Asian American women like figure skaters Karen Chen and Alysa Liu of the US team and Zhu Yi of the China team have also been promoted by their national teams and scrutinized — sometimes harshly — by Olympic fans.
Commentators have mocked Yi for falling in the team event, as if she deserved the mistake after giving up her US citizenship to compete for her ancestral homeland. Others are angry that she “stole” the Olympic spot from an actual China-born athlete.
Even the winners struggle to feel fully embraced in America.
Kim, who won the halfpipe at the Beijing and Pyeongchang Olympics, has revealed she was tormented online daily. She says she was consumed by fear that her parents of her could be killed whenever she heard news about another brutal assault on an Asian person.
There have been 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 gathers data on racially motivated attacks related to the pandemic.
“The experience of hate is withering, and it takes a huge mental health toll,” says Cynthia Choi, the coalition’s co-founder. “When we think about the Olympics, it’s really incredibly powerful to have taken place in Asia three times in a row. That context is very significant, 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 racist verbal, physical and sometimes deadly attacks for two years now, fueled by the pandemic.
Some perpetrators have based their hate on the fact that the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China. Adding to the mix: former President Donald Trump, who regularly talked about COVID-19 in racial terms.
Gu, the daredevil freestyle skier who placed first in the big air competition, said she’d never been as scared as when a man directed a tirade about the coronavirus’ Chinese origins against her and her immigrant grandmother at a San Francisco pharmacy.
The San Francisco native, fashion model and social media figure has also been criticized with anti-China rhetoric for switching from the US team to the China team. Conservative Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson and Will Cain even dedicated a segment to berating Gu, saying she was “ungrateful” and is “betraying her country de ella.”
Those racially charged denunciations have been called out on social media for being hypocritical. Phil Yu, who runs the popular Angry Asian Man blog, tweeted succinctly: “Oh sure, it’s always ‘go back to your country’ but not ‘go back to your country and win a gold medal.'”
The dichotomy of the Asian American woman’s existence is not limited to Winter Olympians, though. In October, Hmong American gymnast Sunisa Lee said she was pepper sprayed by someone shouting racist slurs while driving by in a car. At the time, she was standing outside with a group of Asian American friends in Los Angeles while filming the “Dancing with the Stars” TV show.
Lesser-profile Olympians from the Tokyo Games like golfer Danielle Kang and karateka Sukura Kokumai spoke about their experiences with anti-Asian hate last summer.
Kang said she’s fought racism all her life and urged for a broader social studies curriculum that could better capture today’s multicultural America.
“I’ve been 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 have heard, ‘Do you eat dogs for dinner?’ It’s nothing new to me. However, the violence was very upsetting. But the violence has also been around. I’ve gotten into fist fights. I’ve grown up like this.”
Kokumai, who is Japanese American, was angry to discover that the same man who had harassed her in April with racist slurs also assaulted an elderly Asian American couple.
Equally painful: colleagues’ silence when the incident was reported. She said Japan’s coach called her about it before members of her US team did.
“It was really hurtful that it took so long for my side of the federation to address it,” Kokumai said last summer.
In July, when Lee became the surprise breakout star of the Tokyo Olympics by winning gold in the all-around event and bronze on uneven bars, Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said she felt conflicted about seeing Lee on a pedestal given the way Hmongs have been marginalized.
“I’m really wrestling with this idea that we’re all ‘American’ only when it comes to us being excellent and winning medals for the country,” Choimorrow said. “Asian American women are hyper-visible in ways that dehumanize us and completely invisible in the ways that humanize us.”
Seattle-based AP journalist 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.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.