In recent years, we've seen the emergence of several Asian American athletes in many professional sports. These athletes have had to overcome not only their opponents on their respective playing fields but also the perception that Asians Americans aren't real athletes or that they really aren't American athletes. As part of ESPN's commemoration of May as APA Heritage Month, the following is an article by Prof. Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida that ponders these questions about what it means to be an Asian American athlete.
Caught Between White and Black
Discussions about race and sport in America long have been mostly a black-and-white issue. That is, about the convergence of African-Americans and Caucasians on the field of play. Toward the end of the 20th Century, the discussion broadened to include Latinos. But as we begin Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the nation's fastest growing population group continues to lag far behind as participants in sport.
According to Census 2000, there are 10.2 million Asian Americans in the United States, a number that is anticipated to grow significantly in the years ahead. Yet ask average sports fans to name an Asian American athlete and most would struggle to rattle off but a handful of familiar names. Truth is, there aren't many Asian Americans playing sports today, whether it is on the youth level or in the professional arena. Neither are Asians involved in running sports, save for Nintendo's ownership of the Seattle Mariners.
Unlike many other ethnic and racial groups that have turned to sports as a way to break into mainstream America and break out of the cycles of poverty, Asian Americans do not look upon sports as a road to reach social, economic or educational goals. As recent census data suggests, they already have a higher household income and a higher graduation rate, both on the high school and college level, than any other demographic group, including whites. "Asian Americans put huge value on education," said Yun-Oh Whang, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Central Florida and a native Korean. "Becoming a doctor or lawyer is the ultimate goal of many Asian American kids, which is heavily imposed by their parents."
Asians are comprised of people from 27 different countries, each with its own distinct culture, language, religion and economic system. Some have come to the United States to flee war and oppression, including many from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Some, like many Asian Pacific Islanders, have come to escape poverty. Many from these countries remain in poverty in the United States. But in general, Asian immigrants come to America already highly educated and of middle- or upper-class means. This is true of many Chinese, Japanese, Asian Indians and Koreans, four of the six largest Asian American population groups. Consequently, the desire to play sports to enter mainstream American life is not part of the fabric of most Asian communities.
The desire to play and enjoy sports is there. Still, Asian Americans face as many stereotypes on the field of play as they do off it. Whether coaches, players or fans, the common misconception is that Asian Americans are physically inferior to whites, African-Americans and Latinos. Smart, yes. Athletic, no. "It is common that coaches and teachers at schools presume that an Asian American kid belongs in the science lab, not on the football field," Whang said. "This is why it is so important that Asian American athletes have to rise to the top and show the general public that Asian Americans can also achiece excellence in sports."
Blazing the Trail for Asian Americans
Sammy Lee was among the first to embrace and excel in both academics and athletics. Though today he lacks the name recognition of Jackie Robinson or Roberto Clemente, pioneers for African American and Latino athletes, respectively, Lee is their Asian equivalent -- and then some. A year after earning his medical degree, he became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal, finishing first on the 10-meter diving platform at the 1948 London Games and again at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Already a veteran of World War II, Lee served another tour of duty in Korea in 1953, where he learned he had won the James E. Sullivan Award as America's top amateur athlete.
Only 5-feet, 2-inches tall, Lee overcame discrimination to attain his goals. A Korean American whose appetite for Olympic competition was first whet when he attended the 1932 Los Angeles Games, he practiced diving at the Los Angeles Swim Stadium and the Brookside pool, where only whites could use the pool every day but Wednesday. After Lee and other people of color used it, the pool was drained and there was fresh water for whites by Thursday morning.
"My father told me to never, ever use you color as an excuse," Lee told ESPN.com. "There were several times I used to think I was being screwed, but I bit my lip and kept my mouth shut. I used it as motivation. I wanted to show them that I could be better than them, that I could be the best. So I became the one who tried the most difficult dives." In the years since his Olympic achievements, Lee said he believes much has changed with regard to the perception of Asian Americans in athletics. "Sixty years ago, they said you had to be Caucasian, slender and tall to be a diver," he said. "Now, 60 years later, they say you have to be Chinese."
Fledgling Asian American athletes now have a growing host of professional athletes, whether Asian American or simply Asians playing in America, with whom they can more closely identify. Those who followed Lee to open doors in other sports -- like Michael Chang in tennis, Amy Chow in gymnastics, Kristy Yamaguchi in skating, Jim Paek in hockey, Ichiro Suzuki in baseball, Dat Nguyen in football, and Tiger Woods in golf -- make it easier for future generations to step into the athletic arena. Now not everyone has to become a doctor or lawyer.
More Than Just a Trend
Only half of one percent of all Asian/Pacific Islander students were also athletes, according to the 2001 NCAA Graduation Rates Report. In dramatic contrast, nearly 6 percent of all African American students were also athletes in college. Among white students, 2.6 percent were also athletes. There is no hard data for youth sports participation, but in cities where there are larger Asian American populations, such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, anecdotal evidence suggests that Asian American children are now much more interested in sports since they see adults who look like them on SportsCenter.
"I think there is a significant number (of Asian American athletes) now, but there will be many more in the future," said Lee, who juggled his busy career as an ear surgeon to help others pursue their own Olympic dreams. Among them was Greg Louganis, whose legacy as an Olympic diver earned him a place alongside the most recognizable Asian American athletes even today.
"Who would have thought in my day that you could make so much money as an athlete? Michelle Kwan made $5.3 million, and she's an Olympian, an amateur," Lee said. "When I made the Olympic team, I had to quit my job as a locker room boy. And I made only 70 cents an hour. There is so much money out there now, you'll see more" Asian Americans playing sports in the years to come.
But the implications can be more far reaching than seemingly insignificant results on the athletic field. That Asian Americans are picking up golf clubs after watching Tiger Woods and Se Ri Pak dominate as professionals, or are putting on skates after watching Apolo Anton Ohno and Kwan compete as Olympians, eventually their participation will lead to more integration of Asian Americans in other aspects of American society. It is there where the lessons learned on the field of play can have their greatest benefit.
As we all begin to cheer for the team, there will be the realization that it is just that -- a team made up of people from America's diverse society. Now Asian Americans are part of that team. And sports can be the vehicle used to eliminate at least part of the barrier that has historically alienated Asian Americans from the larger American society.
Copyright © 2003 by Richard E. Lapchick and ESPN. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Suggested reference: Lapchick, Richard and ESPN. 2003. "Asian American Sports Stars & Athletes." Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/sports.shtml> ().
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and is the author of 10 books, including Smashing Barriers: Race and Sport in the New Millennium. He is also Director Emeritus of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.
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