Why these Olympics were different
The Olympics are to the U.S. like men’s basketball is to Duke. For most of the year, we all mill about our own daily lives and run around campus in our own bubbles. But like tour guides suggest to all million of these Blue Devil Day prospective students on their campus tours, Duke basketball is the unifying event that brings together an otherwise very scattered campus population. We can all rally behind Grayson Allen, scream our heads off for Marvin Bagley III and bow in reverence of Coach K.
Pyeongchang 2018 offered an opportunity for us to rally behind the American flag. Not just the American flag, but also the people there to wave it for us. This particular Team USA happens to be the most diverse in American Winter Olympic history, and happens to spotlight a significant number of Asian-Americans.
Fourteen Asian-Americans represented the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympics, meaning that this year was a major win for greater representation.
These few weeks of Asian Americans’ time in the spotlight has not gone without controversy. Their time in the news has helped bring forth important conversations. For example, even Chrissy Tiegen weighed in on the questionable comments by New York Times Editor who tweeted about figure skater Mirai Nagasu: “Immigrants: They get the work done.” Nagasu, born in California and raised in the United States, was the first U.S. women’s figure skater to land the triple axel at the Olympics. But the editor’s decision to tweet what she thought would be an apt reference to Hamilton was yet another reminder that Asian-Americans are often still seen as foreigners of sorts—a phenomenon otherwise known as the “perpetual foreigner stereotype.” This incident is also reminiscent of the 1998 Nagano Olympics with the infamous MSNBC headline “American beats out Kwan” when Tara Lipinski beat out Michelle Kwan for gold. Both athletes were born and raised in the United States, but there was a clear reason why one was singled out as the “American.”
However, this one incident should not overshadow the accomplishments of our Asian-American athletes in Pyeongchang. Chloe Kim, 17, won Gold in women’s snowboard half-pipe. The U.S. figure skating won bronze during team competition, which included Vincent Zhou, Nathan Chen, Karen Chen, Madison Chock, Mirai Nagasu, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani. The Shibutani siblings won bronze in ice dancing. Nathan Chen made headlines for his unprecedented quad-jump capabilities, and same for Nagasu’s aforementioned triple axels. JR Celski, a familiar face in speed skating, returned in hopes to follow up to his three Olympic medals. The country held its breath as these young adults, some of the best this country has to offer, set off to represent our country and make history.
It is also during the Olympics when I remember how I used to idolize Olympic athletes growing up. My sister and I used to fawn over Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan; when I had the opportunity to meet Kwan at a Duke Democrats event in 2016, I struggled to articulate that she is one of my biggest inspirations—and not only to myself, but also to tens of thousands of young Asian boys and girls across the country. This woman reminds us that girls like me could excel as an athlete, in the same way that Jeremy Lin continues to serve as an inspiration for people interested in the NBA or Hideki Matsui for the growing number of Asian Americans in the MLB. While it wasn’t Michelle Kwan’s fault that my budding figure skating career didn’t take off, she and others like her paved the way for other athletes to constitute the Olympic team we have today.
Although I spent the last few weeks absolutely glued to any Olympic live-stream coverage, I am even more excited that there will be a whole generation of Asian-American kids with their own Olympic idols to look up to—idols that look like them. Idols who show them that the United States is indeed their home, and they, too, can make their country proud even though they may not look like a “typical American.”
But perhaps the most enduring aspect of the Olympics is that all American athletes compete to bring glory back to the United States, regardless of their race. When Chloe Kim won gold and the Shibutanis won bronze, the news reported how Americans had won. This ability for individuals to earn medals and bring honor to this country, as Americans, is something we can all strive to do together. After all, Asian Americans are what the name suggests—Americans.
Amy Wang is a Trinity senior. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.