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Descriptions of the bodies of Asian Olympians are part of the trend to dehumanize Asians in the United States

In 2010 figure skating coach Frank Carroll, who coached Asian American Olympians like Michelle Kwan and Mirai Nagasu, said Asian-born skaters have been successful on the ice because their bodies are “Often small and slender”.

“They have fast and light bodies; they’re able to do things really quickly, ”Carroll told The New York Times. “It’s like Chinese divers. If you look at these bodies, there is nothing there. They are like nymphs.

Carroll’s remarks were part of decades of Olympic Games commentary that focused on Asian bodies, often focusing on the size, beauty and fragility of the athletes. Experts say this kind of generalization is racist and dehumanizing and is part of a long history of exoticizing and sexualizing Asian women in the United States.

Rachael Joo, associate professor of American studies at Middlebury College and author of “Transnational Sport: Gender, Media and Global Korea” told NBC Asian America that the representation of Asian American athletes has not changed much over the years. years. “There’s a lot of misguided essentialism going on,” she said. “If we’re going to talk about bodies, let’s not generalize by race or nation. “

Asian Americans first made an impact in Olympic sports when Victoria Manalo Draves, who was called the “prettiest champion” of the Olympics by Life magazine, won a gold medal in diving on platform and springboard at the 1948 Games, becoming the first Asian American to win gold. . “If there had been a beauty pageant at the Olympics last year, the raven-haired girl shown here would have won it just like she won both women’s diving championships,” Life said.

Two days after Draves’ victories, Sammy Lee became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold, winning the platform diving; he repeated in 1952. The San Francisco Examiner called the legendary US Army medic and athlete “Little Sammy,” calling him “pint-sized” and “tiny.”

Decades later, descriptions of Asian American athletes have remained much the same.

At the 1984 Olympic Winter Games, 16-year-old skater Tiffany Chin was nicknamed “China Doll” by reporters covering the games. In 1992, an article in the Los Angeles Times described Olympic figure skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi as “impossible” and “fragile.” Journalist Mike Downey wrote that Yamaguchi was “not much taller than a Barbie doll” when she started hopping one foot on the ice as a child.

Newsweek juxtaposed the “delicate” Yamaguchi with its competitor, “the fat little” Midori Ito of Japan, whose “powerful legs bowed in the old fashioned way, what the Japanese once called, wickedly of their wives, daikon legs. , after the big legs of the archipelago. , squatting radish.

Experts say that when the media focuses on the bodies of Asian American Olympians, it erases the existence and excellence of their athleticism and makes it seem like their talent is simply innate and not the result of years. drive and dedication. Critics also point out that Asians, like all ethnicities, have varied body types and that there is no uniform way to describe them.

“This is one of the main ways in which racism works – by creating these different terms of humanity and ability,” said Stanley Thangaraj, anthropologist and author of “Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian. American Masculinity ”, who is also a former athlete and trainer. “The discourse on bodies flattens the differences within these communities and essentializes them and creates a monolith of community. “

In 1996, Carroll, the skating coach, told the Edmonton Journal that “Asian women have very little breasts, very few breasts, and generally small bodies and tight hips. This is ideal for figure skating because the weight distribution and balance in the air, the axis, is very easy with this kind of body.

At the first Kwan Olympics in 1998, Washington Post writer Amy Shipley said the then 18-year-old skater “looked delicate and graceful enough to be posed on top of a tree. Christmas “.

In The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2004, Paul Daugherty wrote that when 25-year-old American gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj spoke, she looked “petite, dapper, 8-year-old.” As if someone had planted helium implants in their voicemail box.

“Creating them as fragile fits into a larger racial rhetoric that constructs Asian Americans as not fully adults,” Thangaraj said. “We have not yet reached adulthood and are therefore considered outside the realm of sport and the American adult athletic body.”

The broadcast media echoed many of the same stereotypes seen in print media over the years.

In 2010, NBC News’ Ian Williams reported on South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim when he said that “Asian skaters, especially from Japan and now Korea have the advantage, their smaller frames have them. allowing you to turn faster and jump higher “.

NPR released an infographic in 2012 on how Olympic bodies have changed over the years. He said the ideal swimmer’s physique includes short, powerful legs, huge wingspan, wide hands and feet, and a long, tapered torso.

“Asians have the longest torsos relative to their height, but they tend to be shorter, so swimming has long been dominated by Europeans,” reads alongside a photo of the five-time medalist. Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian, who is 6 years old. -foot-6 and whose mother is Chinese.

Coverage of the Olympics is regularly criticized for being racist and sexist, and athletes like Chloe Kim have spoken out in recent months about being the target of racist abuse by sports fans.

As Asian American athletes prepare to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, including Sunisa Lee, who will be the first American Hmong Olympic gymnast; swimmer Torri Huske ‘; Sakura Kokumai of Karate from the United States; and artistic gymnast Yul Moldauer – many Olympic observers hope journalists will avoid vile clichés and racist stereotypes.

“There will always be body talk, but I think the problem is when there are no female athletes commenting,” said Joo. “I’m not saying this is going to resolve all kinds of racist or sexualized descriptions of people, but I think it would be a big step.”



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