This year, Sunisa Lee, a Hmong American from Minnesota, and Yul Moldauer, a Korean-born gymnast from Colorado, made their Olympic debuts for the Women’s and Men’s USA Gymnastics teams, respectively. Lee and Moldauer are among Asian American athletes promoting cross-cultural understanding through their Olympic participation. Their careers reflect the role of sports diplomacy as a light for the Asian American community, which has increasingly been the target of hate crimes and negative sentiment in America since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eighteen-year-old Lee is the first Hmong American to ever compete at the Olympic Games. The Hmong, a Southeast Asian ethnic group with roots in Laos and China, emigrated to America throughout the 1970s and 80s. Hmong in America totaled 327,000 in 2019, and Lee herself is from St. Paul, the top US metropolitan area by Hmong population. The Hmong community has long struggled with economic insecurity, and many now look to Lee as the fulfillment of the American Dream that refugees a generation ago hoped for. She made history by winning the Olympic women’s Individual All-Around competition, scoring a record 15.3 on uneven bars during the U.S. Women’s Team Finals—the highest score any athlete has ever received. Given that Laos has never won an Olympic medal, Lee’s participation in Women’s Gymnastics provides a world stage to highlight both the country of her heritage and the Hmong culture at large.
Now more than ever, at a time when tourism is inhibited by the pandemic, athletes can showcase their culture through their sports participation. Speaking to Team USA Gymnastics, Lee recounted, “competing for the Hmong community is important for me because I feel like it’s so small and people still aren’t aware of it... I think a lot of people in the Hmong community also are afraid to branch out and do sports and continue with it, and I want to be someone that inspires them to do it.”
Twenty-four-year-old Moldauer’s participation in Olympic gymnastics also fosters Asian American sports media representation. Moldauer, born in Seoul and adopted by American parents before he was a year old, uses his platform to raise awareness about anti-Asian racism in the United States. At a Team USA media event earlier this year, Moldauer revealed he had been the target of racist jokes throughout his life. His heritage has become a noteworthy aspect of US Olympic participation at the Tokyo games and reflects the Olympic values of peace, unity, and friendship.
Strong community and people-to-people connections sustain alliance coordination between the United States and Japan. Leader visits develop personal relationships at a time when face-to-face diplomacy has been constrained by the pandemic. US First Lady Jill Biden met Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a string of bilateral talks between foreign leaders attending the Olympic opening ceremony. Furthermore, in recent US-Japan bilateral meetings, President Biden signaled support for the Olympics, thereby embodying an American spirit of camaraderie with Japanese counterparts.
Sophie Glenn is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service concentrating in Regional and Comparative Studies—Southeast Asia.