By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
In our last article for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we examined the influence of Asian culture onto the development of sports in the west. For this article, we are going to expand on that initial theme by honoring athletes of Asian and Pacific Islander descent who have had and/or are making history in western sports.
While there are more notable athletes than we can reasonably fit this article, we selected these athletes for their role in challenging the stereotypes of Asian people in sports as well as increasing representation in sports and competitions that are traditionally underrepresented. Thus, these athletes are making an important contribution against anti-Asian racism simply by pursuing their sport and serving as a role model for future generations.
Sky Brown (United Kingdom)
The youngest athlete on our list, Sky Brown, is only 12 years old. Yet, even at her age she represents the next generation of athletes of Asian descent who are showing that they are much more than a simple stereotype. As the Tokyo Olympics are set to take place this summer, Brown’s sport of skateboarding is set to make its Olympic debut and Brown is taking the lead for Team GB. Despite being only 12, she has already taken home a bronze medal from the World Championships and became the first female athlete to land a frontside 540 at the Summer X Games.
Brown is of Japanese/British descent from Miyazaki, Japan. Her family is full of skateboarders, and it became part of her life as soon as pre-school. She is self-taught and grew up with the sport where she quickly flourished. When she was eight years old, she participated in the Vans US Open, becoming the youngest athlete to ever compete in the event. Her career has since blossomed where she quickly gathered sponsors and thousands of followers on social media. She initially competed for Japan but switched to representing Great Britain in 2019 which had a “more relaxed approach” that suited her style. Following her impressive performance at the Summer X Games, she is heavily favored and ranked to qualify for Team GB at this year’s summer Olympics. If she competes, she will be the youngest British summer Olympian, beating a record set in 1928 by 13-year-old swimmer, Margery Hinton. Even at 12 years old, Brown is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an athlete for the next generation of sports.
Jeremy Lin (USA)
Professional basketball player, Jeremy Lin, made his mark on sports when he was drafted into the NBA and signed a contract with the Golden State Warriors in 2010. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lin became the first athlete of Chinese/Taiwanese descent to play for the NBA. As a result, Lin had quite a strong following even before he played his first official game, with fans particularly from the Asian American Community in San Francisco celebrating his spot on the NBA. While Lin chose to stay focused on his game rather than bask in this fame, his official NBA game debut came during the Warrior’s Asian Heritage Night and was preceded with a standing ovation. As a result of the generally low representation of athletes of Asian descent in the NBA, Lin’s early career was closely followed by Asian communities all throughout the USA and Canada, with many times electing to host an Asian Heritage Night during their scheduled games with the Warriors.
Despite his newfound fame and role model for young Asian American athletes, Lin experienced a lot of racism while on and off the court. During his college career, his games were often filled with anti-Asian slurs and racist language from fans, teammates, and competitors. During his NBA career, media commentators would often invoke anti-Asian stereotypes and racist slurs when posting or describing Lin’s performance, many of which was publicly condemned and called out by Asian American Professional Organizations. Lin himself feels that westernized perceptions and stereotypes of people of Asian descent have negatively impacted his career, but also acknowledges that his ethnicity has led to an increase in his publicity and public image that he would not otherwise had on his playing career alone.
Much of this is also attributed to the rise of “Linsanity” when he became a starter for the New York Knicks, the associated press called him “the most surprising story of the NBA” and he was quickly considered as the most famous Asian American NBA player. Jeremy Lin became front page news all around the USA and throughout Asia, and his vast improvements in playing style and athletic skills led to the New York Knicks to the NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs. Lin has continued to have a strong professional basketball career since then and continues to play for the NBA.
Lin has channeled his success and fame into helping people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as fighting against anti-Asian racism. He has donated substantial sums of money toward various non-profts and charities to support people in need and has reflected on his own experiences in using his platform to stand up against anti-Asian racism. At an NBA Together Virtual Roundtable held in May 2020, he shared…
“All it would take is 10 seconds to put yourself in the position of someone who is dealing with racism or somebody who is legitimately contemplating whether to go to the grocery store to get food for themselves or to not because they’re afraid of being attacked. … Sometimes the best thing you can do is to not post the hateful comment, or don’t be a troll, or take a second to think about what you’re saying or doing or if you know someone acting ignorant call them out. All these things are small steps in the right direction.”
Born from Kaita, Japan Mikio Oda became one of Japan’s first big track and field stars when he competed at the 1923 Far Eastern Championship Games in Osaka winning gold medals in the triple jump and long jump as well as a bronze medal in the high jump. He went on to compete at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris but failed to place in his events and returned to the Far Eastern Games in 1925 in Manila where he won gold in the Triple Jump and 1927 in Shanghai where he won gold in the triple jimp, long jump and decathlon. He was one of 25 members of the Japanese Olympic Team at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, he became the first Japanese athlete to win an Olympic gold medal when he placed in the Triple jump and was one of only two Japanese athletes to win gold at the 1928 Olympics (the other being Yoshiyuki Tsuruta who won gold in the men’s 200m breaststroke six days later) and one of five Olympic medals won by Team Japan at the event.
Following his retirement from athletics, Oda became an influential figure for the Japanese Olympic Committee as well as the International Association of Athletics Federations technical committee. He later went on to coach athletes for the Japanese national team at the 1952 Summer Olympics and 1954 Asian Games. He became a professor for Waseda University, was awarded the Olympic Order and was posthumously named as the best Asian male athlete of the 20th century for track and field.
Sammy Lee (USA)
Olympic Diver and physician Sammy Lee was born in Fresno, California born from Korean immigrants who owned a small restaurant near Los Angeles. At 12 years old, Lee was living in LA during the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and was inspired by the huge Olympic banners, souvenirs, athletes, and other Olympic events surrounding the games during that time. As a result, Lee set a goal to become an Olympic Champion in diving. Unfortunately, Lee’s early career was impacted by racial segregation at the time, where he was only allowed to practice at his neighborhood pool on Wednesday’s that was considered “international day” that was scheduled before the pool would be drained and cleaned. Since he was not allowed to practice at the pool, Lee’s coach improvised by digging a put in his backyard for Lee to practice with.
Lee later went on to continue his diving career in high school and enrolled at the University of Southern California. With the 1940 and 1944 Olympics being cancelled due to WWII, Lee went on to compete and win gold in both the 10m platform and 3m springboard in the 1942 national championships and won hold again in the 10m platform at the 1946 national championships. Lee finished his college career and received his Doctor of Medicine in 1947 and went to compete for Team USA at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London where he took home a bronze medal in the 3m springboard and gold in the 10m platform events. He became the second Asian American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal after Vicki Draves who won her Olympic gold only two days earlier in the springboard competition.
After the 1948 Olympics, Lee became a major in the US Army Medical Corps and was expecting to serve in the Korean War, however he was instead sent to compete in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki where he went on to win gold again in the 10m platform. Following the Olympics, he served in the US Army Medical Corps in South Korea and was honored for his athletic accomplishments with the James E. Sullivan Award and the “most outstanding amateur athlete in the USA” by the Amateur Athletic Union.
Despite his athletic, military and medical career, Lee continued to experience anti-Asian discrimination, particularly in his efforts to buy a house in an upscale, predominantly white neighborhood in Garden Grove, California. Despite this, he went on to become a successful doctor for 35 years before his retirement. He also went on to coach two-time diving gold medalist, Bob Webster, Pat McCormick, Olympic legend, Greg Louganis and served as a diving judge at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He was induced into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990s.