The two Asias at the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 |

Winter Olympics Beijing

The Beijing Winter Olympics has finally seen Asian athletes become household names, not just in Asia, but around the world. There’s Chloe Kim becoming the first woman in Winter Olympics history to win two consecutive golds in her sport. Nathan Chen earned the highest score in Olympic history for his Short Program, beating 12-time gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in the process. Adding to that is Eileen Gu’s huge visibility, as much for her gold medal performance as her persona.

Whether you’re pro-China, anti-China, or somewhere in between, for many the best thing to come out of this year’s Winter Olympics has been the visibility of Asian athletes.

While on paper it sounds awesome, the reality is that despite unprecedented levels of success at Beijing 2022 – especially by Asian-American athletes – there’s a double standard in the way Asian athletes are seen in general, and especially when they succeed.

For instance, while Eileen Gu became China’s darling after winning the Big Air event, she was immediately chastised by Chinese netizens after her advocating of VPN (which is mostly blocked in China). When Nathan Chen won gold for figure skating, Chinese netizens barraged him with insults – including calling him a ‘traitor’ – for representing the USA.

A Tale of Two Asias

As these Olympic Games have proven, for many people there are two “Asias.”

There are the national athletes from the leading Asian wintersports countries like China, Korea, and Japan, who have been regularly winning winter medals for a long time. Japan won its first winter Olympics medal in skiing in 1956. China and Korea won their first winter Olympics medals in 1992 (both in speed skating). In the decades since, we have grown accustomed to the idea of an Asian medallist from an Asian country.

Case in point: gold medals were awarded to China’s Su Yiming for the Men’s Big Air and Japan’s Ayumu Hirano for the Men’s Halfpipe in this year’s Winter Olympics.

Now there’s another kind of Asian athlete at these games: Asian-Americans, Asian-Europeans, or pretty much Asian-wherever else. Despite being born and raised in their respective countries, perfecting their talents in their respective countries, and ultimately winning medals for their countries, they’re still fetishised as some kind of mysterious Asian sports unicorn.

This Olympics has given amazing visibility to Asian-everywhere talent, from Eileen Gu to Nathan Chan.

But this is not the first time individual Asian-diaspora athletes have won big at the Winter Olympics. When American Kristi Yamaguchi won in the 1990s, she was a ground-breaker; when Apollo Ohno won repeatedly in the 2000s, he was a phenom.

When Nathan Chen, Alysa Liu, Vincent Zhou, Karen Chen, Chloe Kim, Eileen Gu, et al, converge at the same time, they are proof that an entirely new sports demographic has emerged.

The elephant in the (sports) room

The common misconception for a long time, especially in the west, has been that Asians simply aren’t interested in and/or gifted at most sports, apart from the usual cliches like table tennis or badminton. Despite being 59% of the global population, Asians are hugely underrepresented in most elite sports.

At the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, until the last few decades many Asian families – whether they were living in Seoul, Sichuan or San Francisco – never felt they had the luxury of sufficient disposable income or time, to prioritise sports to the level needed to groom a generation of elite athletes.

Until relatively recently, people from these countries were too busy building (or rebuilding) their lives after wars, upheavals, or immigration. Families had bigger things to worry about than spending money financing their offspring learning non-transferable skills like landing a quadruple lutz (skating) or a 1440 (snowboarding).

Unsurprisingly, this was then mirrored in many Asian economic migrants from Korea (1960s), Vietnam (1970s), China (1980s) or dozens of other places. Sports cost money that many first- or second-generation immigrant families didn’t have, or preferred to spend elsewhere, such as education.

Their huge increase in GDP per capita in Asia’s most successful sporting countries – Japan, Korea, and China – has largely mirrored their meteoric rise in global sports. For instance, in the late 1950s after the Korean War devastated the country, Korea’s GDP per capita was US$158; by the year it hosted the Winter Olympics in 2018, it was over US$33,000. In 1960, 15 years after the end of WWII, Japan’s GDP per capita was still US$500; today it’s US$43,000. In China, its GDP has increased almost 100 times over the same period.

As such, the average Japanese, Korean or Chinese citizen became more financially able to take up skiing or snowboarding, and get good at it.

Asian Americans and wintersports

One cannot deny that certain sports favour certain kinds of people: basketball tends to favour tall people, while elite distance running favours folks with a genetic predispositions to specific biomechanics relating to their legs, lungs, etc.

Elite sports favour those with money.

Almost anyone can play football and get good at it – all you need is a ball – regardless of socio-economic status. That’s why you have football phenoms coming from developing countries, developed countries, rich and poor alike. Winter sports is different. Snowboarders and skiers need special boots, skis, poles, season passes, and training. Figure skating involves years of private lessons and the financial ability to travel frequently for tournaments.

In the USA, Asian Americans now have the highest median income of any demographic (ie. Latinx, African American, Caucasian, etc.), and since American national athletes receive little or no financial support until they qualify for the Olympics, the cost of grooming an elite athlete is entirely on the individual families.

However, well-to-do Asian American families don’t often prioritise sports as a measure of their children’s success. Something else comes first.

Alysa Liu

Education and elite sports

Immigrant families highly value their children’s education, and a stereotype of the Asian American offspring is that they’re often enrolled in elite schools.

Case in point, Eileen Gu scored 1580 on her SATs and will be attending Stanford. Chloe Kim was admitted to Princeton. Four of America’s 6 Olympic singles figure skaters are Asian-Americans and 3 of them also attend prestigious Ivy League schools. Nathan Chen is in Yale, Vincent Zhou is in Brown, and Karen Chen was admitted to Cornell.

However, in addition to academic excellence, families with the financial means would want their child to be well-rounded, so they may also put their kids through the arts (ie. violin, piano, etc); this includes artistic sports like figure skating or a prestigious sport like skiing, rather than something like long jump – which to be blunt, is not the average Asian parent’s idea of a Great Leap Forward

Which is precisely why in 2022 we’re finally seeing a surge in the number of second- and third-generation Asian American athletes competing and winning at winter sports. 

So as Asian wealth has grown both in Asia and in the USA (or other countries), wintersports has now become as accessible as it is in any other community or culture. Now the world just needs to catch up to that reality, and instead of treating successful Asian wintersports athletes like an anomaly, start seeing them for what they are: elite athletes.