Games could have lasting impact for Asian-Americans

As the 2008 Olympic Games in China have been projected across the globe to one of the largest TV audiences ever, we saw Chinese athletes doing great things in gymnastics, swimming and diving. The enormous popularity of Yao Ming was seen in the opening ceremony and through the basketball tournament. Through last Tuesday’s events, Asian nations had won 32 percent of the gold medals, and China itself had won 21 percent.

All along, I wondered what the impact would be on Asian-Americans and people of Asian descent in America when the Olympics ended. The sports industry should be interested because Asian-Americans make up one of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic groups. The aftermath of the Olympics might be an additional catalyst for corporations to create marketing campaigns aimed at Asian-American communities and break the stereotypes underscored by some national teams from Spain.

Until recently, athletes of Asian descent have hardly been heard from in sport in the United States. There are stereotypes that Asians are not interested in or encouraging their children to play sports, that they were not athletic enough but instead were viewed as being super-intelligent.

But the stereotypes have been cracking. In professional golf, Vijay Singh from Fiji and Tiger Woods, whose mother is Thai, are two of the top men, while Asian women are dominating the LPGA. Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi created great interest in ice skating, just as Michael Chang did in tennis. We have had Olympic medalists in gymnastics with Amy Chow and in volleyball with Liane Sato. With these successes, there is also a small but growing number of athletes of Asian descent in professional leagues, college, high school and youth sport programs across America.

The current numbers of Asian athletes at the elite levels seem to affirm the stereotype. Major League Soccer has the highest percentage at 3 percent, followed by Major League Baseball at 2.8 percent, the NFL at 2 percent, WNBA at 1 percent and the NBA with less than 1 percent. Male and female college student athletes of Asian descent were 1.7 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively. In each area, there has been only minor, incremental increases in the last five years.

There have been similar, small increases in the percentages of Asians running our professional sports. In the league office, the WNBA is tops with 12 percent of the professional posts being held by Asians followed by 7 percent in the NBA, 4 percent in MLS and 3 percent in MLB. There are no Asian team presidents, general managers or head coaches in all U.S. professional sport. In senior positions on teams, the NBA and WNBA have 2 percent each while the rest have 1 percent being held by Asians. In team professional positions, 4 percent of the posts in the NBA are held by Asians while the other leagues have 1 percent each. There is hardly any Asian presence at the top levels of college athletics departments, and there are no Division I conference commissioners who are Asian. At the NCAA headquarters, 4.8 percent of the chief aides and directors are Asian, while 1 percent of all professional staff there are of Asian descent.

That is a lot of numbers and not many people. What does the future hold?

Major League Baseball has had great stars from Asia. Currently, there are about 20 players from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, with Japan leading the way with 16. Japan won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. Yun-Oh Whang, a professor of sports marketing at Kansas State, said he believed “it brought the baseball fans of the world a lot closer because they all learned to respect the other leagues.”

But when it comes to the future, Whang looks even more positively at these Olympics: “The U.S. gymnastics team competing in the Olympics right now has two Asian-Americans (Kevin Tan, men’s team captain, and Raj Bhavsar). Having those Asian faces and names competing under the stars and stripes is a great education to the American public that Asian-Americans are also Americans.”

Asian-American gymnast Kevin Tan competed
in the Beijing Olympics for the U.S.

Another major development from the games is the broadcasting on the Web site, which Whang said is where many Asian-Americans are viewing the games. The site has video feeds from almost all Olympics events, so the viewer does not have to rely on the selection made by NBC. This is the first Olympics where this online video technology is being used so widely.

Whang said this “is great news for many Asian-Americans who can watch their favorite sports either live or recorded any time. … It is a great tool for many Asian-Americans who inherited a culture of enjoying different sports.”

“It means that more Asian-Americans can enjoy the Olympics the way they want to, and it brings them closer to their roots,” Whang said. “By watching the Korean women’s archery team wining its sixth consecutive gold medal at the Olympics, Korean-Americans get a huge boost for their self-recognition and identity. Thai-Americans would cheer Thai’s first weightlifting gold medal in history, and Japanese-Americans would feel proud of Japan’s continued dominance in judo. It is all possible because of the extensive coverage on the Internet.”

I believe all of this will help Asian-American parents and their children to think more often about a sports career and not only a career in medicine, law or other lucrative professions. Asian-Americans now witness the success, fame and financial rewards of star players, like Yao, who look like them, and that has changed their perception of a talented athlete.

I also think that there will be a significant social impact of Asian-Americans being more involved in sports, which will result in a broader general sense of involvement in the whole society. As more Asian-Americans become fans of hometown teams with Asian stars, they will join fans of various racial and ethnic backgrounds at the ballpark in ways that have not been possible in too many other aspects of their lives in America.

When our sports expand their participants and their audiences, America will be the biggest winner.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

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