It is not newly trod territory to state that being an Asian American (guilty) who has spent a life obsessed with sports (very guilty), where close to nobody looks like you or even people’s two-dimensional concept of you, can at times be … strange. Disenfranchising. Erasing. On the quiet end, it’s one of those deep itches you can’t figure out how to scratch and hope will just resolve itself, and on the loud end it can be a truly identity-warping existential bummer.
Because of this, and in some sense in spite of this, my brain long ago developed an involuntary tendency to catalogue every Asian moment in American sports that it encounters. It clings to whatever it can get. And, oddly, relative scarcity makes these moments more prone to dissection - not every moment is made equal. As the proverbial kids say, there’s levels to this. How significant was the achievement? To what extent does it buck stereotypes? Most importantly, how much - my lonely, narcissistic heart pleads - is this person just like me?
My brain long ago developed an involuntary tendency to catalogue every Asian moment in American sports that it encounters.
It’s why in addition to 7’6” Yao Ming’s arrival and 7’0” Yi Jianliang’s exit from the NBA, I remember, with startling clarity, 5’9” Yuta Tabuse playing four games for the Phoenix Suns in 2004. Yes, Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Matsui, and Ichiro were all trailblazers in their own ways, but I submit to you Kurt Suzuki, local Hawaii boy turned decent catcher and indecent hat wearer. You give me Hines Ward and Haruki Nakamura, both NFL players of mixed Asian heritage, and I’ll give you Dat Nguyen and Eugene Chung. Yes, Kristi Yamaguchi defeating Midori Ito to win gold in figure skating in 1992 was a watershed moment, but I also remember Bryan Clay, whose middle name is Ezra but also Tsumoru, won gold in the decathlon (non-Academic type) in 2008. Tiger Woods is perhaps the greatest golfer of all time and grew up near me, but Michael Chang, who won the 1989 French Open as a 17-year-old, and grew up even closer to me and has the last name CHANG, has a special place in my heart. When Jeremy Lin went Super Saiyan for three weeks and hit that game winner over Jose Calderon, I literally cried. Some of these moments, to quote the kids again, just hit different.
And then the last 12 months happened. Yes, these were odd times for society, and so, by the immutable laws of the universe, they were also an odd time for sport (seriously, Google “Sports Microcosm Society”). But they were a remarkable time for Asians in sports. After Collin Morikawa (who is a Japanese American / Chinese American Californian and thus convinced me to actually watch golf) won the PGA Championship last August, there was a veritable glut of golf moments: Hideki Matsuyama won the Masters, Morikawa also won The Open Championship, and an Asian or Asian American golfer placed in the top four in all but one of the Major championships contested. In tennis, Naomi Osaka won two more Grand Slam events and became a global voice of a generation, a figurative and literal torchbearer, and an investor in, and actual salad at, Sweetgreen. Yunghoe Koo, a Korean American placekicker in the NFL who was cut in 2017, made the Pro Bowl. Naoya Inouye is considered the world’s third best boxer, pound for pound. Rui Hachimura, an NBA player criticized for his defense in his rookie season, became the best isolation defender in the league. It was even a strange honor that Yuta Watanabe, the third Japanese man and second Yuta to make the NBA, went viral getting horrifically dunked on by rookie Anthony Edwards. Two months later, the Raptors signed him to a fresh contract. And, of course, Shohei Ohtani might be having the greatest season in baseball’s long history, and is constantly described as a modern-day Babe Ruth, only faster, taller, and much better looking. Let me repeat that: fast, tall, and good looking.
What a time to be alive.
Which brings us to the Olympics. I love the Olympics. There are, in my estimation, two types of Olympics viewers: those whose broad, generous hearts make them aware of events like Modern Pentathlon and Dressage and Rhythmic Gymnastics, and the shallow masses who are not. I’ll let you guess which one I am. The Games blend together many of my favorite things: athletic competition, dramatic story-telling, special interest montages, cultural minutiae that carries only the faintest social currency. It is a benign neurosis. Without bloviating on whether or not these Olympics should have happened, I will shake a fist at the clouds and shout: once they were happening, I was watching, and I was watching across multiple media platforms and devices. I am, figuratively, slide 2 of the IOC’s Powerpoint deck for advertisers.
The Games blend together many of my favorite things: athletic competition, dramatic story-telling, special interest montages, cultural minutiae that carries only the faintest social currency.
But the Olympics, with its quixotic ideals of national pride and global sports utopia, also cause a particular strain of brain-scattering dissonance for me: there are tons of Asian athletes and there are tons of American athletes, but historically, there have not been a lot who are both. And it makes me starkly aware that I am, indeed, both. It is like a nucleus-splitting sports neutron arrives every four years - where there once was my atomic sense of self, now there is my nationality, my ethnicity, and a mushroom cloud.
But this Olympics was somehow different. And not just because my three national identities (verified by 23andme) - U.S., Japan, China - stood atop the medal table, winning over 30% of the gold medals and nearly 25% of all medals. And it wasn’t just because Japan absolutely crushed at prototypically American sports - basketball, baseball, softball, skateboarding.
It was because everywhere I looked, an Asian American was doing, well, something. Sunisa Lee, of course, won gold, silver, and bronze. Yul Moldauer and his excellent hair competed for the men. Torri Huske and Jay Litherland each won silver in swimming, while Johnny Hooper was on the water polo team. Michael Norman won sprint relay gold. Alexander Massialas, who won two medals in fencing in Rio, won bronze, and Lee Kiefer won America’s first ever gold in individual foil. For indoor volleyball, the men had Erik and Kawika Shoji and the gold medal-winning women had Justine Wong-Orantes. Laura Zeng and Lili Mizuno helped the US qualify its first ever full rhythmic gymnastics team. In golf, Collin Morikawa barely missed getting bronze, but then Xander Schauffele won gold instead. Sakura Kokumai (Karate - kata) and Coryn Rivera (road cycling) finished just off the podium. As usual, the entire badminton and table tennis teams were Asian American. There were even some Asian Americans who competed for other countries - Kanoa Igarashi, Naomi Osaka, and Sky Brown (yes she’s British, but she lives mostly in the US and speaks with an American accent, so I’m counting her). So deep was the field that someone - Kara Eaker - was even sent home because of a positive COVID test. Remarkably, I’m sure there are others I’ve missed.
It really was a splendid twelve months. It was nice to have these figures not only inspire and entertain, but also speak up about the spate of Asian hate this last year. It’s nice to have them as stereotype-busting figures in society. And it’s nice, of course, to think that some kid somewhere sees themselves in them, and thus has a different concept of what they are and can be.
I’m just not totally sure what it means. There are, of course, many reasons why for years there were so few Asian American athletes; I suspect that the major one is racist immigration policies and racist views in general - for about a half century, Asians weren’t allowed to immigrate to the US and thus likely missed out on at least a few generations of sports development. But just think of that first wave of Asian immigrants before those policies were put in place - there were some real early Asian sports legends like Wally Yonamine, Wat Misaka, and Tommy Kono. Does their past suggest this is just the beginning of something bigger in our future? Or is it just a blip?
I guess whatever the macro trend is, maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about it, and risk forgetting the people and this moment. Maybe, after a year, a decade, a lifetime, a century of waiting, just having all of this can and enjoying it can be good enough too.