Team USA remains on top of the overall medal count at the Rio Olympics, but two Asian countries are in the top ten for most medals won: China and Japan.
Overseas, Asian dominance in athletics is everywhere. Most recently, Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling beat U.S. swimming legend Michael Phelps — winning the 100m butterfly with an Olympic record time of 50.39s and nabbing his country’s first Olympic gold ever.
Yet in the United States, the stereotype that Asians are uncoordinated and not athletic, and are physically inferior to whites, Blacks, and Latinos, persists. “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,” said Yun-Oh Whang, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Central Florida and a native Korean. “Asian Americans put huge value on education… Becoming a doctor or lawyer is the ultimate goal of many Asian American kids, which is heavily imposed by their parents,” Whang added.
Generally speaking, as a culture, Asian Americans don’t see sports as a road to reach social, economic, or educational goals. Another generalization: beyond academics, any extra time should be spent on extra academics (even if you’re an A student), or playing an appropriate musical instrument (piano and violin), not sports.
There are Asians who immigrated to the United States to flee war and oppression, and to escape poverty.
But in general, four of the six largest Asian American population groups — Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Koreans — came to America already highly educated and of middle- or upper-class means. Census data shows, Asian Americans have a higher household income and a higher graduation rate than any other demographic group, including whites. To play sports to enter mainstream American life is not seen as a path to success in most Asian communities.
Asian Americans are underrepresented in professional sports. While students of Asian ethnicity attend universities at a disproportionate rate, only half of 1 percent of Asian students choose to participate in college-level athletics, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The sports in which Asian Americans do excel tend to be solo sports, like figure skating and diving, sports that require little or no physical contact.
Before Jeremy Lin, Asian Americans never got a fair shake in basketball. And even Lin fought an uphill battle. Despite leading Palo Alto High School to a Division II State Championship and winning Northern California’s Division II player of the year award in high school, Lin received no Division I scholarship offers. He ultimately attended Harvard University, before joining the NBA.
Lin was certainly not the first Asian super athlete to embrace and excel in both academics and athletics.
Sammy Lee of California, 5-feet, 2-inches tall, became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal, finishing first on the 10-meter diving platform at the 1948 London Games. This came a year after earning his medical degree.
Sports is not a time-waster. Besides the obvious health benefits, a University of Florida study found that kids who participate in sports earn better grades in school and develop better social skills. Participating in sports provides opportunities to develop friendships, to learn to lose and win gracefully, to practice taking turns, to take on leadership roles, to learn to follow rules, and to practice managing conflict. The social interaction experienced while participating in sports also improves mood and mental health.
And here’s a statistic that could appeal to parents with old-school Asian sensibilities. Asians make up 5 percent of the U.S. population, but only 1.5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are Asian. A survey by Fortune magazine of individuals at the executive vice president level or above in 75 Fortune 500 companies found that 95 percent of those corporate executives participated in high school athletics. 95 percent. That in itself is a strong case to pursue sports.
So break through that “bamboo ceiling” and go for the gold! You can mix athletics and academics. And since the world already expects us (model minority) to, we can excel.