A Golden Past, Present, and Future
Asian American Olympians You Need to Remember.
As the European Championships, NBA Playoffs, and NHL Playoffs are beginning to wrap up, sports lovers and billions of other people will turn their attention to the Summer Olympics in Japan starting in a few weeks. Hosting nearly 11,000 athletes from 206 countries, this Olympics will prove to be an important one for many reasons. With six new events including surfing, karate, and sport climbing, many of them being “test trials” to see if they are a success and will remain a part of the official Olympic events, we could witness the only appearance of these sports. While it’s fun to cheer on your favorite countries, at the end of the day, the Olympics are exciting because of the athletes. From household name athletes to relatively unknown athletes with unbelievable underdog stories, I’ll always love learning more about them. With the rise in hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many Asian American Olympians have already spoken out. We may have already been introduced to some of them briefly, but there are a few Asian American Olympians that really stand out for their incredible journeys that we should all remember as we watch the upcoming games.
Dr. Sammy Lee
Dr. Sammy Lee (1920-2016) became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10 meter diving during the Summer Olympics in 1948. As a result of pools only being open once a week to non-white individuals on so called, “International Day,” the Southern California native spent more time diving into sand pits than actual pools. Being the son of Korean immigrants, Lee always felt pressure to pursue careers other than diving, throughout his entire life he played a balancing game between academics and sports. After graduating from the Keck School of Medical School USC, Dr. Lee joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was stationed in Korea from 1943-1945. He would prepare for the Olympics following World War II and serve during the Korean War in the Army Medical Corps after. While on his tour in Korea, he was given a one month leave to go to the Olympic Games hosted in Helsinki where he won another gold medal in the 10 meter dive (after winning the Gold in London Olympics); being the first Olympian to win back to back Gold Medals in the same event.
Following the Helsinki Olympics, Lee became a Department of State goodwill ambassador. Promoting America, and especially an America with “Equal Opportunities,” became important for the nation in the midst of a Cold War. Lee would go on tours around Asia, pro-Communist states, on behalf of the United States. Being a physician and an Olympic Athlete, he was sent on goodwill missions around the world to collaborate with other physicians and train young divers. Despite devoting much of his time to the State Department; he soon faced discrimination when trying to purchase a home back home in Orange County as realtors refused to sell to him because of segregation policies. When news broke about this discrimination, many in the community were quick to help Lee and his family find a home in Anaheim. He continued to practice medicine until his 60s and remained an active member of the diving community, coaching several Olympic Korean, Japanese, and American divers.
“Well, first, I wanted to show my fellow Americans that we, Koreans, had a place in American society.”
— Dr. Sammy Lee
Born in 1924 to an English mother and a Filipino father in San Francisco, Draves became the first Asian American woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she did so during the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Despite learning to swim at 10 years old and being introduced to competitive diving at the age of 16, she quickly became a highly decorated diver. Similar to Dr. Lee, as a result of segregation, Draves had trouble finding pools that were deep enough for diving, and she had even a harder time finding a swim club that would accept her. However, at 17, a swim club finally agreed to coach Draves. She was told to go by her mothers maiden name, Taylor, rather than her father’s name, Manalo in competitions because it sounded more American. She was coached by Lyle Draves, who would eventually become her husband. He claimed that as soon as he saw Draves dive at 17, he thought, “Oh, boy, there’s a champion.”
During her time at the 1948 Olympics, Draves accomplished many incredible feats. She became the first woman to ever win gold in the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform within the same games. With these wins, she became the first Asian American woman Olympic Champion. After her Olympic wins, Draves became a coach, eventually coaching Pat McCormick to win his four gold medals.
Representing the United States in karate’s debut at the Olympics is Sakura Kokumai, who ranks 4th in the world in karate and is one of 40 members of the American karate team. Although she was born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, she spent much of her childhood in Japan. In many ways these Olympic games will be like a homecoming for the 28-year-old. Kokumai is the sole female competitor for kata. Kata is a solo performance where the athlete has choreography, similar to gymnastics.
Earlier this year, Kokumai was verbally attacked by a stranger while at the park. The unprovoked stranger, who turned out to be Michael Vivonna, shouted racist names and made threats towards the Olympian. Kokumai captured this racist rant on her phone which helped police catch Michael Vivonna. They soon realized that Vivonna had also assaulted an old Korean couple a few weeks early in that same park. While many Olympians have supported #StopAsianHate, Kokumai has really made this traumatic event something that she wants to be at the forefront of her message as she competes on the world stage.
Tokyo isn’t a new destination to host the Olympics, however this will be the first time that karate will be an official event. The event will be broken into two events: kata and kumite.
The Tokyo organizers voted during the International Olympics Committee to include karate, but it will not be performed during the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, while the Los Angeles 2028 Games lineup has not been announced. By gauging the popularity of the sport at the Tokyo Olympics will determine whether it continues in the lineup.
Scout Bassett was born in Nanjing, China and raised in an orphanage until the age of 7, when she was adopted by a white family from Michigan. After Losing her right leg to a chemical fire as a baby, the now 4’9 and 85 pounds Paralympian is the fastest American Paralympian runner to run the 100 meter dash. Growing up in a predominantly white school district, Scout struggled to fit and was often bullied for both her race and disability. Sports proved to be a therapeutic way for her to compete and find a community.
"I struggle with it because I feel like I have so many different identities. Growing up in a white family and being raised in a white town but being ethnically Chinese, sure, but I'm also an adoptee and I'm a minority and I have a disability. It's like so many different things to struggle with."
Bassett made her first Paralympic appearance in Rio 2016 where she competed in the women’s 100 meter T42 and women’s long jump T42. Finishing 5th in the 100 meter and 10th in the long jump was not what she was hoping for. Literally training the day after her disappointing appearance at Rio, Basset has been preparing for the Tokyo Olympics with her eyes set only on gold.
As I write this, it’s still not entirely certain if the Japan 2021 Olympics, which were already postponed due to COVID-19, will be pushed back again as the pandemic continues. Japan has already barred all spectators, foreign and domestic, from cheering on their teams in person. Furthermore, this year’s Olympics (like most other Olympics) has already been marred by controversy after controversy, as well as domestic boycotts and protests in Japan disapproving of the Games. These concerns shouldn’t be overlooked and there are articles that will be included at the end that discuss these very issues that I urge you to read. Regardless, these individuals are just a few important names to remember. Lee, Draves, Kokumai, Bassett, and so many more are all pioneers in their own right for the Asian American community.
To further decolonize our minds: