6 Asian North American Olympians who made history

A writer reflects on and celebrates the athletic achievements of six Asian North Americans in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.

Asian American and Canadian representation at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2021

Despite the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games being postponed a year, the spirit of the Games lives on, especially through the lives of six Asian North American Olympians.

However, ahead of the Olympic Games, toy maker Mattel released its new line of inclusive Olympic Barbie dolls. The company faced backlash for falling short on Asian representation in the collection. In the past, the toy maker had created Barbies to honour Asian athletes, like Korean American snowboarder Chloe Kim.

Asian underrepresentation in professional sports in North America has a long history. The underrepresentation stems from the model minority myth and the stereotypical belief that people of Asian descent are shorter, weaker, and slower than people of other racial groups.

Let’s celebrate the amazing accomplishments and achievements made by Asian North American Olympians during these past Olympic Games.

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Six Asian North Americans who made Olympic history

Here are six Asian American and Asian Canadian Olympians who made their mark on Olympic history:

1. Sunisa Lee (Team USA, Gymnastics)

Sunisa Lee Olympian Tokyo Games 2021
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sunisa Lee caught the eyes of many during the Tokyo Olympics. Not only was she the first Asian American woman to win gold in the women’s all-around gymnastics event, she also made history as the first Hmong American to represent Team USA.

Lee’s inspiring Olympic journey reflects the larger struggles of Hmong Americans, one of the most marginalized Asian American groups in the US. Their long history of struggle dates back to the Vietnam War, where many Hmong people were abandoned, forced to flee their home country, or died.

In an interview with CNN, Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, reflects on this proud moment for Hmong Americans.

“What’s really important is you have a daughter of a refugee representing the United States of America at the Olympics,” said Xiong.

2. Maggie Mac Neil (Team Canada, Swimming)

Maggie Mac Neil Olympian 2021 Tokyo Games
Photo Credit: AFP

Maggie Mac Neil swam to Canada’s first gold medal in the women’s 100m butterfly, setting a new Canadian record. You may remember her iconic moment squinting at the scoreboard before realizing she had won.

Mac Neil’s gold medal victory sparked conversations on social media around cultural and adoptee identity. The swimmer was born in Jiujiang, China, and was adopted at a young age and raised in London, Ontario, Canada.

During a press conference following her Olympic win, Mac Neil expressed that although she was born in China, she was adopted at a very young age, and that’s as far as her Chinese heritage goes. 

Worrisome narratives of adoptees then began to surface. 

South China Morning Press featured a story on Mac Neil, and the outcry around China’s now-scrapped one-child policy. This controversial narrative suggests that adoptees only got this far because of the “gift” of adoption. This type of saviour mentality is toxic and founded on speculation.

Discussions around Mac Neil’s cultural identity and heritage should not overshadow her skill, excellence, and achievements in her sport.

It’s important to listen to and learn from adoptees.

3. Sean McColl (Team Canada, Sport Climbing)

Photo Credit: Mohd Rasfan/ Getty Images

Veteran climber Sean McColl is the first Canadian to compete in sport climbing at the Olympic Games. Although finishing 17th overall, McColl achieved a personal best in the speed climbing component during the qualification.

Since 2012, McColl has played a pivotal role as president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) athlete’s commission to get sport climbing into the Olympics.

As a half Chinese, half Caucasian Olympian, he is a role model to other members of the biracial community.

4. Alannah Yip (Team Canada, Sport Climbing)

Photo Credit: Tsuyoshi Ueda/ Pool

Alannah Yip made her Olympic debut and represented Team Canada at the first Olympic Games for sport climbing. Although she didn’t move on to the final event, Yip set a new personal record in the speed climbing component during the qualification.

Yip’s journey to the Olympics challenges the model minority myth and the stereotypes associated with it, like the “academics-over-athletics” mantra. Graduating from the University of British Columbia in 2018 with an engineering degree in mechatronics, Yip found a way to finish her education while training for international competitions.

Instead of choosing one over the other, Yip found a way to marry both her career in engineering and in climbing.

“I think the biggest thing is that engineering and climbing are all about problem solving – being faced with something that you have the fundamental building blocks to solve but you need to find your own way to get to the top,” she said in an interview with Sportsnet.

5. Kayla Sanchez (Team Canada, Swimming)

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

Kayla Sanchez is a Toronto-based swimmer and Olympic medallist who won silver and bronze for two women’s swimming relay events.

In an interview, Sanchez’s father Noel Sanchez said he hopes his daughter will inspire more Filipinos to take on sports.

The Olympian had mentioned to her father that she was aware of looking different from other swimmers around her – she wasn’t as tall as her competitors.

“Our height or ethnic background is not a hindrance to do well in sports. It’s not easy but with dedication and hard work, we can do it,” her father said.

Filipino Canadians are finding a role model in Sanchez. A 14-year-old swimmer from Toronto, Grace Uy, expressed her excitement seeing people of Filipino descent winning medals.

“It was just really nice to see representation because there isn’t a lot of that always when you join something, like swimming,” she said.

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6. Lee Kiefer (USA, Fencing)

Photo Credit: Elsa/ Getty

Filipina American Lee Kiefer became the first Asian American woman to win fencing gold in individual foil. She did this while balancing medical school at the University of Kentucky.

During an interview with TODAY, Olympic fencing legend Peter Westbrook said bringing inclusion to a sport that doesn’t traditionally appeal to people of color is especially gratifying. He is determined to make fencing accessible to more people of colour.

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Looking Ahead

There’s still a long way to go to seeing more Asian American representation in sports.

“Representation begets participation, which leads to greater representation,” said Christina Chin, associate professor of sociology at Cal State Fullerton.

When you see athletes who look like you, you can’t help but support them. They are disrupting the stereotypes, biases, and status quos of who can excel and dominate in these particular sports.

Athletes like basketball player Jeremy Lin have taken a strong stance to dismantle the stereotypes of Asian representation in sports. We need to challenge people’s conceptions about what Asian bodies can or cannot do.

“What I would really love to see conveyed to the next generation is this belief of confidence, and having a deep confidence and security in who you are, and not being ashamed of that,” Lin said in an interview with NBC Asian America.

Representation matters. Let’s continue to celebrate Asian American and Asian Canadian Olympians and athletes to inspire the next generation of Asian North American youth.

Featured Image: Frank Gunn/ Canadian Press

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