Like many Asian-Americans, I remember the first time I ever saw sports heroes who looked like me. They were female figure skaters. Tiffany Chin placed fourth in Sarajevo in 1984, and became the first nonwhite skater to ever win the U.S. Nationals the following year. Kristi Yamaguchi shattered the ice ceiling with her triumph in Albertville in 1992. Michelle Kwan took silver in Nagano in 1998, but that year she was the true champion as far as I and my heartbroken family were concerned. Figure skating was the sport where a series of Asian-American women figuratively and literally carried the torch, not just for our community but for our nation, and they did so with honor, skill and exceptional grace.
It was a grace that, sad to say, we saw painfully and repeatedly tested.
Kwan’s second-place finish to underdog Nagano teammate Tara Lipinski generated the indelibly ugly MSNBC chyron: ”AMERICAN BEATS OUT KWAN.” And that kind of coverage didn’t end when the games did: Eight years later, reviewing Kwan’s career, Slate’s Will Leitch wrote an incredibly mean-spirited piece calling her a “loser” and “choker” whose “collapses were cushioned by the fact that the winners” were “apple-cheeked Americans.”
The prospect of a Kristi Yamaguchi victory six years earlier had led Newsweek to write, “What’s a good ole boy to do if there’s not only a Toyota in the driveway and a Sony in the bedroom and a Mitsubishi in the family room — but on the screen there, as the band plays the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ is the All-American girl of 1992, and her name is Yamaguchi?”
And in an interview I recorded with her recently, Tiffany Chin, the original Great Asian American Skating Hope, recalled her own first experience with skating’s cult of the “golden girl”: “I remember when I was growing up,” she said, “a little girl told me, ‘You’re really good, but you know you’ll never be a champion. Figure skating champions have blond hair and blue eyes, and you don’t have either.’” This was years before Chin could even imagine she might someday own U.S. National gold — or represent her nation in the Olympics! — but the comment galvanized her determination to prove the girl wrong. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, we’ll see about that,’” she told me, laughing.
The common thread behind these reactions to the rise of Kwan, Yamaguchi and Chin was the suggestion that people with Asian features and heritages are somehow less American than our white counterparts.
This is an issue Asian-Americans deal with in many settings, but it’s a chronic one in figure skating — because more than any other winter athletes, female skaters are seen as exemplars of a certain feminine ideal. The ones who win Olympic gold are metaphorically crowned as the latest in a line of Ice Queens, with a four-year reign over the Arendelle of our hearts and wallets. And if you hear the way media and marketers describe their idealized Ice Queen vision, it’s not that far off from Disney’s Elsa: a pale, slender vision with rosy apple cheeks, flaxen hair and sapphire eyes.
This is the “golden girl,” a term coined in the 1930s for Sonja Henie, the blond superstar who won 10 consecutive Worlds and three consecutive Olympic golds for her native Norway, before moving to America and becoming a multimillionaire superstar of the Hollywood screen.
Henie was the first golden girl, yet far from the last. When I was growing up, the term was used to describe mediagenic American athletes like Nicole Bobek, Rosalynn Sumners, and Elaine Zayak. East Germany’s Katarina Witt turned it into her personal brand. Oksana Baiul, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes reinvented the concept with a pixie spin. There was often an aspect of classism and body shaming in how the term has been applied: As Amanda Hess aptly pointed out in Slate, in the infamous Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding rivalry, it was slender, pale brunette Kerrigan who was framed as the “golden girl” over blond Harding, with her muscular body, ruddy features and blue-collar aesthetic.
But as far back as I can remember, the idea of the golden girl was never applied to nonwhite skaters.
Debi Thomas, the first black U.S. and World Champion, the first black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics, was always framed as an inspirational icon for African-American skaters, not an aspirational ice princess for all. After she took bronze in 1988, behind golden girls Katarina Witt and Elizabeth Manley, the LA Times attacked her as failing to “behave like a champion,” calling her a “quitter” who revealed herself as a “demanding and temperamental” skater who “expects to be treated as the gold medalist that she never became.” Thomas received few commercial offers after returning from Calgary; a couple of years ago, it was revealed that after falling on hard times, the former champion was bankrupt and living in a bedbug-infested trailer.
Four years ago, I wrote about the unusual decision by the U.S. Figure Skating Association to deny a spot on the U.S. Olympic team to Japanese American skater Mirai Nagasu — who’d placed just out of the medals in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and won bronze at the Nationals — in favor of Ashley Wagner, who fell repeatedly and came in fourth. The USFSA asserted that the Championships were never officially a set of Olympic trials. But prior to 2010 the governing body had only failed to send a top-three Nationals medalist to the Olympics once — in 1994, when silver medalist Michelle Kwan was dropped from the roster in favor of Nancy Kerrigan.
Blond, blue-eyed statuesque Wagner was “golden girl” perfection. So were the other two skaters sent to Sochi, Polina Edmunds and the young challenger with gold in her actual name, Gracie Gold, who’d been dubbed the future of U.S. skating even before she won the Nationals. Her visibility was boosted in part by her appearance: USA Today proclaimed that Gold had the ideal aesthetic for a skating champion, with her “blonde hair pulled into a bun,” she looked “straight out of a fairy tale.”
And Nagasu, the dark-haired, round-faced, burger-loving daughter of Japanese immigrants, didn’t.
That year she watched as the U.S. team was shut out of individual medals, while Wagner’s mouthing of ”bulls**t″ after seeing her low scores became a global meme. In a sport that often is as much about image as it is about athleticism, golden girls are given a pass for falling short of expectations or acting entitled; those not given this status — including most skaters of color — are not.
Things are different this year. Mirai Nagasu is in Pyeongchang and has made history already by showing off the first triple axel by a U.S. woman in Olympic competition. And she’s not alone: Exactly half of the 14-member U.S. skating delegation is Asian-American, including fellow ladies singles skater Karen Chen, men’s singles skaters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou and ice dancers Alex Shibutani, Maia Shibutani and Madison Chock.
When asked who their heroes were, this groundbreaking group cites the same athletes who shaped my own love of the sport: Kwan, Yamaguchi and Chin. One can only imagine what future generations of Asian-American skaters the team in Pyeongchang will inspire with their achievements.
Jeff Yang is cohost of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” a featured columnist for CNN.com and a frequent contributor on NPR.