Being an Asian athlete
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The whole world is watching the Tokyo Games right now, but how diverse are the teams? sportanddev talked to former competitive bodybuilder Amazin LeThi about the challenges of being an Asian athlete, especially in Western countries.

Western countries have sent some of the biggest teams to the Tokyo Games. However, these teams are often mostly white, not representing the racial make-up of their country’s demographics. As Amazin LeThi says, “the face of society is multicultural, but the face of sport is white.”

Amazin is a former Vietnamese competitive bodybuilder and currently training to compete in shooting, who knows first-hand what it means to be an Asian athlete in a Western country. While sport gave her the strength to overcome the trauma that she experienced  from all the racism and bullying growing up in an all-white background in Australia, it was also a space where she continued to experience a lot of racism.

Being a minority

Amazin says that being Asian in the West means being challenged by the invisible model minority myth – and it is something that she has lived through. The model minority myth serves to hide any discrimination that Asians may face, and as Amazin recalls, much of it comes out in sports.

The stereotypes related to Asians classify them as ‘geeky,’ ‘nerdy,’ and petite, implying that they are fit only for certain sports and that they should not engage in more physically demanding sports and games. If Asians are part of sports which are more physically demanding, such as bodybuilding or weightlifting, then they are usually “one of one.”

Making grassroots sport inclusive

So what can be done to make sports more inclusive and accommodating of Asians in Western countries? To start, Amazin believes we need to work on grassroots sport. Racism and discrimination start from a very young age for Asian athletes. Unconscious biases are built into the athletic community – it is prevalent in teammates, in coaches, in recruiters and in spectators.

Thus, we need to start from the grassroots – that is where Asian children face an unsupportive environment. The issues that Asian kids face at the grassroots level often are very similar to the ones Asian athletes face at the elite level.

It is important to build education around immigration and racism into grassroots sport curriculum. Further, grassroots sport themselves need to be more inclusive, with not just more Asian athletes, but also Asian coaches and staff. That way, there is an in-built support system which is available for those that do face racism, and these challenges can be conquered as a team.

Understanding the specific cultural contexts of Asian communities, grassroots sport also need to build a bridge with families and other stakeholders to educate them of the benefits of children engaging in sport, beyond medals or accolades.

Involving the whole sports community

It isn’t just for the federations and grassroots sports to take action, however – the sports community, as a whole, needs to take action and be allies. As Amazin notes, so many teams are predominantly white, with perhaps one Black or Asian face – it is then also on teammates to come out and be allies in actions and call out the discrimination. And it isn’t just teams that have to be diverse – executives, coaches and recruiters must also come from diverse backgrounds.

The role of the media

The media also needs to learn how to talk about Asian athletes. Amazin feels that since the media and community do not actually know how to talk about Asian-ness, they completely avoid bringing that aspect up when talking about an athlete.

Or, if their background is discussed in the media, it is often done so in a manner that reduces them to a ‘perpetual foreigner.’ Giving the example of Chloe Kim, the American snowboarder who won a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Amazin illustrates how she was celebrated in the media after her win, but as a foreigner, and an immigrant. Even though Kim was born and raised in the US, she was still seen as a foreigner who had broken rank.

But it is important, still, to celebrate these wins and Asian athletes who have broken the mould. Amazin says, “It is a revolutionary act when you see yourself [represented] for the first time.” With many Asian heritage individuals winning medals at the Olympics and other international games, that too in sports that are deemed to go against the Asian stereotypes, it will work to inspire a whole generation of Asian children and youth to see themselves as able to participate in these sports.

Building a supportive fan base

The last frontier that needs to be more inclusive towards minority athletes, according to Amazin, is the fan base itself. Giving the example of the recent Euro finals, she notes that the fan base around sports can be quite misogynist and racist. This toxic environment, in turn, breeds hatred for athletes who are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

This is also the toughest frontier to conquer. It isn’t feasible to ban fans, or make them undergo anti-racism or anti-sexism training. So how can we re-educate the fan base? Till we are able to do this, we will continue to face issues. While many have criticized the absence of spectators at the Tokyo 2020 Games, Amazin feels it may pose as an opportunity for athletes from minority backgrounds, who will not be subjected to hate from the fans. In that way, these Games are an opportunity for many athletes.

While there is still a lot of progress to be made, for now, Amazin is focusing on celebrating the successes of Asian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics. She’s especially proud of young Asian athletes like Sky Brown, the youngest Olympian in history, and of recent Olympic gold winners Maggie MacNeil, a swimmer from Canada, and Hidilyn Diaz, a Filipino weightlifter who won her country’s first Olympic individual gold.