|Wednesday, May 1
Updated: May 2, 2:38 PM ET
Asian American athletes: past, present and future
By Richard Lapchick
Special to ESPN.com
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.
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."
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, 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.
"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 were 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.
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.