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Why Asian Americans are well-represented in figure skating

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Turns out I am not the second coming of Kristi Yamaguchi or Michelle Kwan, but I was definitely one of those kids who pretended to do triple axles in their parents' living room. And I am still obsessed with Olympic figure skating, kind of like my next guest.

CHRISTINA CHIN: It's almost like the Super Bowl in many ways...

CHANG: Totally.

CHIN: ...For Asian Americans.

CHANG: Christina Chin is a sociologist at California State University Fullerton. She studies sports cultures and Asian American communities. We happen to share a favorite figure skater right now.

CHIN: Nathan Chen.

CHANG: Yes.

CHIN: I mean, he's just - he's so dynamic. And it's just breathtaking to see him, his performances. I could watch him all day long.

CHANG: That's U.S. Gold Medal winner Nathan Chen, who is Chinese American. In fact, there are four Asian Americans on Team USA for individual figure skating out of six athletes, same as in 2018. Now, people who identify as Asian are only about 6% of the total U.S. population, so I wanted Christina Chin to help me understand why we overrepresent in figure skating.

CHIN: It's not just one thing, but I think there's a lot of different forces that have created a really strong pipeline for Asian Americans to find success in the sport.

CHANG: OK, well then, what about sort of the Olympic success for Asian American skaters dating all the way back to the 1980s like Tiffany Chin, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, my heroes growing up? Do you sense that the visibility of those Asian American skaters has somehow activated later generations of Asian Americans to try out this sport?

CHIN: I mean, the names that you listed - Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Tiffany Chin - these athletes were trailblazers who really put Asian Americans on the map for figure skating. It's been such an inspiration for generations of youth to pursue figure skating, and they had to break through a lot of some of these racial barriers to get there.

Kristi Yamaguchi has recently shared an incident when she competed in a youth competition, and after winning for the pairs and the girls' competition, the event organizers assumed that she was Japanese. And there was a delay in the awards ceremony because they told Kristi Yamaguchi that, oh, we're still trying to find another Japanese flag. And she had to tell them, I'm American.

CHANG: Well, you say that there are a number of simultaneous forces at work that have helped contribute to this influx of Asian Americans having success in figure skating. What else do you see?

CHIN: You know, we also need to be very careful not to homogenize all Asian Americans into one category. You know, we are seeing a trend of mostly East Asians who are doing well in this sport. And I feel like that's likely due to the fact that East Asian immigrant groups have often had more economic capital than other ethnic Asian groups. They were likely in a socioeconomic standing that privileged them to invest in private coaching...

CHANG: Right.

CHIN: ...Renting out skate rinks, costumes and all the other financial burdens that come along with being an elite competitive skater.

CHANG: Now, of course, attacks on Asians in the U.S. have surged during this pandemic. How have you noticed these skaters talk about their Asian American identity during this moment that we're all in?

CHIN: I think it's really important that media has actually given them a platform to talk about that. And I think with having Nathan Chen and Chloe Kim...

CHANG: Chloe Kim, who is the gold medal-winning snowboarder.

CHIN: Yes. They've been very vocal about some of the hate that's being targeted against their community. I know for Chloe Kim that after she won her gold in the last Olympics, that did not spare her from a lot of the racism on social media telling her to go back to her country. And even representing the U.S., standing there, holding your gold medal doesn't protect you from being seen as a foreigner or the xenophobia or the racism.

CHANG: Sociologist Christina Chin from Cal State Fullerton. She has edited the book "Asian American Sporting Cultures." Thank you so much for joining us today.

CHIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.