At the White People's Olympics on Wednesday, Kim Yu-na of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan will begin defending their gold and silver medals in figure skating, five days after the men's competition gave us Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu as the champ and Canada's Patrick Chan as the silver medalist.
The elder stateswoman of U.S. hockey has a father who moved to this country from Hong Kong and a mother of both Chinese and Puerto Rican heritage. Julie Chu, 31, helped the American women reach the gold-medal game. The Japanese ski-jumping team took a bronze, its third medal in the nine times the event has been contested on an Olympic level, and one of the team members, Noriaki Kasai, won the silver for the men's normal hill jump ... in the White People's Olympics.
We can't go on like this forever, especially with the U.S. team, which has only six Asian-Americans on its roster of 230 Olympians. But while the Games remain far from a model of diversity, they're not monochromatic either, and haven't been for a while. Consider that Apolo Anton Ohno and Michelle Kwan are iconic, among America's most recognizable Winter Olympians of all time.
Yet the label "White People's Olympics" persists, a well-deserved but poorly worded jab at the narrowness of the Games. I hear it from friends, read it in online comments, see it in print. Subtract two characters, and it's a Twitter hashtag (#WhitePeopleOlympics). One Canadian columnist altered the term slightly, modifying with the more pertinent "rich," and my buddy from the Washington Post, Mike Wise, described the Games as "whiter than an episode of Downton Abbey."
But if Downton Abbey really looked like the Winter Olympics, Lord Grantham would be modeled after Hanyu, and Lady Mary would resemble Kim, at least for one more day. They are the men's and women's figure skating champions, the leading characters at any Winter Olympics.
I understand the instinct to point out the limits of this frozen quadrennial, but neglecting the fact that there are successful athletes of Asian ancestry reinforces a different kind of limit. It upholds potent stereotypes about achievement. Excelling in sports validates the identity of African-Americans, but not of Asian-Americans. Their success somehow renders them white.
"My students feel very proud of Asian athletes because people don't think of Asians as athletes," said Elaine Kim, a professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at UC-Berkeley. "They know the stereotypes."
We all know what "White People's Olympics'' really means. It's supposed to be a wry observation about the lack of black participants in the Winter Games. Wise's column went straight to that point and failed only in its peripheral vision. Default to a black-and-white measure of diversity is pretty common, but it was strange to see Wise do it from Sochi. He wrote a column in 2006 emphasizing the increasing prominence of Asian and Asian-American stars in Torino.
In fairness, I have to concede that the Winter Games were designed for white people. But that should make the success of athletes from Asian backgrounds all the more impressive. It's not a huge breakthrough for racial equality. The Winter Olympics haven't been reinvented as a civil-rights tentpole. We're talking about a tiny but significant shift in popular culture. It doesn't demand a celebration, just acknowledgment.
"Asians are seen as maybe assimilating more with white culture, and the downside to that is that they're not going to be recognized or acknowledged as part of the mainstream,'' said Jeff Adachi, who wrote, produced and directed a 2006 documentary called The Slanted Screen. The film focuses on Hollywood's abysmal treatment of Asian men. (A comparable piece about women, Slaying the Dragon, already existed.)
The most incisive part of the movie is an interview with actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who took some flak from other Asian-Americans for playing stereotypical villains. "We had a choice of playing wimpy businessmen or evil bad guys,'' he says. "… If I'm going to choose between wimpy businessman or playing a bad guy, I'm going to play a bad guy. I want kids to grow up to know that Asian men got (guts)."
Actually, the worst role was none at all. Talented Asian-American actors were largely invisible, sometimes told: "If you were white, you'd be a huge star.'' Adachi doesn't think Hollywood has moved very far, except perhaps in one genre.
"Reality TV is a plus,'' he said. "They include more Asian-Americans, because I guess we're part of reality.''
Sports, of course, were the original reality TV. They allowed Sammy Lee to go off script in 1948 and win a gold medal in diving at the Summer Games. He was the first Asian-American Olympic champ.
"In my day, they said you had to be white to win the gold, because the white man has a 'better looking body,'" Lee told an NBC affiliate before the London Games. He called himself "short and squatty.''
Lee famously had to train in a sand pit all but one day a week, because his local pool in California permitted non-whites to use the facility only on Wednesdays. The water was emptied that night, and everything sanitized before it was turned back over to white swimmers.
That tale makes today's concerns about diversity in sports seem pretty trivial. No athlete has to disappear six days a week while a dominant culture hoards its perks. But with the best of intentions, we can make some stars half-invisible.