Gymnastics and #StopAsianHate

At the 2017 World Championships in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG), Morgan Hurd won the All-Around (AA) title. It marked the United States experiencing its first major success in the post-Karolyi era. It marked only the second instance in WAG history that a gymnast of Asian descent won a major AA title, but it also represented something else.

Morgan Hurd’s 2017 victory set the tone for the 2017-2021 Olympic quad and established a trend that would evolve to become one of the key storylines of the current Olympic cycle. USA Gymnastics is experiencing a massive and unprecedented wave of success from Asian-American gymnasts.

The most recent example of this was the American Cup which is typically one of the most prestigious competitions an American gymnast can aspire to win. On three consecutive occasions this competition has been won by an Asian-American gymnast, Morgan Hurd in 2018, Leanne Wong in 2019, and Morgan Hurd again in 2020.

Kara Eaker, Simone Biles, and Leanne Wong

The current era of American WAG has been defined by Simone Biles, and for good reason. Of all the qualification spots American WAG accumulated at the 2019 World Championships for AA/Event Finals, Simone Biles was responsible for 50% of them. But another 40% had been earned by Asian-American gymnasts.

The first was Kara Eaker who is a 2x gold medalist at the World Championships and only narrowly missed out on the first medal of her career in an individual event with a 4th place finish. The second is Sunisa Lee who prior to COVID-19 forcing a stoppage to major sports competitions, was being viewed as the “young gun” of American WAG and its new breakout star. That’s the more conservative interpretation of Sunisa’s career. Others were going as far as to proclaim Sunisa Lee as having firmly established herself as the best American gymnast after Simone Biles.

The gymnasts themselves have commented on this trend. On numerous occasions in 2019 Morgan Hurd posted a group shot of herself with her Asian teammates captioning the photos with phrases such as “just a bunch of asians” and “asian babes.” Besides the previously mentioned names, other appearances in Morgan Hurd’s Instagram posts include Kayla DiCello, Emma Malabuyo, and Ciena Alipio.

DiCello and Alipio were strong juniors in the American program in 2019 only to be sidelined as their senior careers were taking off in 2020 due to COVID-19. Kayla DiCello was actually the U.S. Junior National Champion in 2019 and finished 2nd to Morgan Hurd at the 2020 American Cup. Meanwhile Malabuyo is a perennial fan-favorite with strong junior results, but her breakout success in senior competition has been hindered by injuries in recent years.

Morgan Hurd, Kayla DiCello, and Sunisa Lee

This is not the first time gymnasts of Asian-American descent have had a major impact on WAG. During the Karolyi era gymnasts such as Sabrina Mar, Doe Yamashiro, Amy Chow, Ivana Hong, Anna Li, and Kyla Ross provided a continual Asian-American presence in every single decade of the last forty years. Some have Olympic gold medals, or an Olympic medal in an individual event, or an AA title at the U.S. National Championships.

But whereas Asian-American gymnasts have been contributors to Team USA’s success in the past, in the current cycle they are doing far more than that. As of the writing of this article, of the 18 gymnasts listed as members of the senior WAG team on USAG’s website, 8 of 18 of them (44%) have an Asian background.

Asian-Americans are having so much success right now that a team comprised entirely of Asian-Americans could realistically win the team gold medal all by itself. At worst it would win “only” a team silver or team bronze medal.

One compelling aspect of a hypothetical scenario where USAG sends an all-Asian American lineup of gymnasts to the Olympics, there are so many strong candidates to choose from (Hurd, Sunisa, Wong, Eaker, and DiCello) that even the alternate would be stronger than most.

Sidenote: I’d also like to point out that at the college level Katelyn Ohashi made herself into one of the most famous gymnasts in the world and she is also of Asian descent.

While Asian-Americans in WAG have been leading the way, men’s gymnastics (MAG) and rhythmic gymnastics (RG) are also witnessing a spike in Asian-American success. In MAG Yul Moldauer has won the American Cup three consecutive times. As well as an AA title at the U.S. National Championships in 2017 while being the runner up in 2018 and 2019. Moldauer is effectively the #2 ranked gymnast in the American MAG program.

Meanwhile in RG, it is a sport where the American program is usually seen as an afterthought on the international stage. But 2016 Olympian Laura Zeng is helping to change that notion. Before the arrival of Laura Zeng, American RG typically finished either in the bottom 19th-24th spots of an AA finals, or failed to qualify any gymnast at all to an AA finals.

Laura Zeng

Laura Zeng has helped elevate American RG to new heights by consistently placing in the top-10 of AA finals on numerous occasions at the World Championships. While American RG has failed to win a medal in major competition, it accomplished something else. At the 2019 World Championships Laura Zeng won the Longines Prize for Elegance.

The award is considered highly prestigious in the gymnastics community and for the gymnast who wins it, it is a sign that he or she is widely revered as one of the most respected gymnasts in the international community. In a sport that is overwhelmingly dominated by European athletes, for an American to win such a highly sought after award, it was a milestone and a sign that USA Gymnastics’s RG program is no longer considered an afterthought on the international stage. Laura Zeng wasn’t just the first American to win this award, but the first gymnast from a country outside of Europe to win it.

Men’s gymnastics (MAG), women’s gymnastics (WAG) and rhythmic gymnastics (RG) are by far the three most important gymnastics disciplines in terms of audience viewership, popularity, and revenue generated. It is a testament to just how significant the Asian-American community has been to Team USA’s success that this demographic is dominating not one, not two, but all three of the major gymnastics disciplines.

Only two Americans get to advance to AA finals in a gymnastics discipline in major international competition. At the 2019 World Championships in all three of those disciplines an Asian-American gymnast earned one of those two spots. If ever there was a golden era of Asian-American gymnastics, we are currently in the middle of it.

And it is existing alongside an unprecedented wave of violence and hate against the Asian-American community.

The acts of violence Asian-Americans have been subjected to have been so severe that most readers are already aware of the problem. Because the first COVID-19 cluster was identified in China, it has caused the Asian-American community to be subjected to false blame for causing the current pandemic. Acts of discrimination, harassment, and violence against the Asian-American community quickly followed.

It has led to vicious attacks against Asian-Americans in incomprehensible ways. From a 39 year old woman who was attacked with acid, to an 83 year old who was punched so hard she lost consciousness, to a stabbing attack involving children as young as 2 and 6 years old. None of these being isolated incidents, but a terrible trend where even the extreme examples have ceased to become a rarity. The most brazen style of attacks representing only the tip of the iceberg of all the Asian-American community has faced in the past twelve months.

Yul Moldauer

Yul Moldauer revealed he had been targeted by someone in a road rage incident while he was driving. Morgan Hurd stated:

I’m constantly worried if the next news story I see will be a name I recognize and/or someone that I love.

These are the experiences of a community that is under attack. Some of whom have personally experienced such attacks, others who live in fear for themselves, their families, their friends, and their community.

Yul Moldauer and Morgan Hurd

Even before COVID-19 gymnastics fans were openly discussing the significance of Asian-Americans dominating the gymnastics lineup at the Tokyo Olympics. But in the wake of COVID-19, that same trend of Asian-American gymnastics dominating the lineup has taken on a far greater significance.

For the Asian-American community, it will be a sense of pride for a demographic that has experienced so much difficulty in the past year. For American audiences as a whole who will be watching the U.S. Olympic trials and the Tokyo Olympics, it will be a very visible reminder that the United States has a strong Asian-American community. One that empowers the United States and makes the country stronger, not hinder it.

And for those who were part of the discrimination, violence, and hate, watching these athletes achieve success will send them a clear message. That in spite of everything, they have failed to marginalize a community that refuses to be marginalized. It will prove that the Asian-American community is as strong as ever and those who think or want otherwise are on the wrong side of history.

Morgan Hurd (L) and Emma Malabuyo (R)

Women’s gymnastics has a longstanding history of producing compelling storylines in the context of larger political issues. Most notably during the Cold War when the sport was dominated by the United States and various communist countries who each had inner rivalries with each other. Vera Caslavska famously dominated the 1968 Olympics immediately following the Soviet invasion of her country. In 1972 Olga Korbut became a celebrity in the Western world at the height of Nixon’s detente. These are just some of the examples where every Olympic quad there are examples of political significance existing just under the radar.

These examples didn’t stop occurring with the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in 2021 the United States will be sending the strongest lineup of Asian-American gymnasts it has ever compiled in a period of history that will be infamously remembered in textbooks as a low point in the way American society treated its Asian-American citizens.

Call it coincidence or call it fate, but once again gymnastics finds itself at the forefront of being an apolitical sport occurring inside a context of larger political elements. As usual, WAG will be front and center with the bulk of the athletes in question being teenage girls. Some of who have an interest in political commentary, others who wish to remain publicly indifferent and want the focus to be purely on their athletic performance.

But while these Asian-American gymnasts focus on putting together a strong performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials, for those watching it their presence sends a powerful message. One of positivity, inclusion, and overcoming hate.

Yul Moldauer and Morgan Hurd

13 thoughts on “Gymnastics and #StopAsianHate

  1. Sorry… Americans are Americans… not Asians or Blacks or Hispanics… don’t try and create something that really doesn’t exist – you win because you are the best… just like I said about Dianne Durham in 1983…. she won the USA Championships because she was the best !

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    1. You’ve totally missed the point of this article. It’s not about saying Asian gymnasts are better, or they’re good because they are Asian. It’s about acknowledging the contribution that gymnasts of Asian descent are making to American gymnastics and the fact that there’s never been a time when so many Asian-Americans are excelling at the elite level. And it’s happening during a time when there’s never been more hate leveled at the Asian-American community. At no point does the writer try to disassociate being Asian from being American—quite the contrary, this is about celebrating that the American gymnastics program has rich diversity that makes it even stronger. It’s a shame that you’ve interpreted this article to mean otherwise.

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      1. No I didn’t miss the point… why are you trying to define gymnasts by race or ethnicity … they are judged by performance… that is what sport is supposed to the about… I could care less what their race or color or religion is… I want to see them perform !!!! Stop this crap about race !!!!!

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      2. In response to Mike Jacki’s comments like “this crap about race” really show how little people understand what people of color experience in the US. Again, the point of the article was never about judging the athletes’ performance based on their race. No one is making that argument. No one is saying that Morgan Hurd won her World All-Around medal because she’s Asian. No one is saying that judges look at race as a factor when they give scores (although I’m sure that case could be made–just not here). What we are saying is that there are now many high-performing Asian-Americans (and for that matter, Black athletes) having success at the elite level *in this country.* I don’t believe it’s because there were always many Asian or Black athletes competing who all of a sudden got really good. I’m sure that access to the sport as well as increasing popularity have much to do with the influx of people of color in gymnastics, and I bet if you asked gymnasts of color about their experiences, they would also say that attitudes towards non-white gymnasts have changed, too (well, at least for people who aren’t Mike Jacki…). Whatever the reason, I’m so happy to see the greater diversity in the sport.

        Also, the comment about Asians being the most populous race in the world is irrelevant to this article. We’re talking about Asian-Americans who have made great strides in the sport in *this* country–people of Asian descent *who represent this country* and are having great success and winning medals for the US, and yet have to be subjected to racist people in their everyday lives who treat them as if they don’t belong here.

        So this article is trying to do a nice thing, which is appreciate our Asian-American gymnasts and let them know that we see them, we know their contribution to the American program, and we reject all the racism and hate that has been directed towards the Asian-American community during the COVID-19 pandemic. And your response is that we’re making this up, and it’s “crap.” Very nice. You stay classy, okay? With support like yours, who needs racists anyway?

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      3. You are the who doesn’t get it… my comments were about the success of diverse cultures in US Gymnastics…. nothing more and nothing less… I cannot and did not speak for the rest of the world and I did not speak about what happens in American cities… I spoke about US Gymnastics… and you should too… if you want to speak about world issues, remove the word Gymnastics from your posts!

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      4. Mike Jacki, these are your comments:

        “Sorry… Americans are Americans… not Asians or Blacks or Hispanics… don’t try and create something that really doesn’t exist”

        “Stop this crap about race !!!!!”

        “Is not the Asian population the largest on the planet????”

        If you were trying to make positive comments about diversity in American gymnastics, you completely missed the mark.

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  2. Go back to the reality of the athletic performance… who do you listen to that tells you there’s more hatred of Asians today… the media? Be careful of being manipulated… and how does that transfer to Morgan or Yul? Gymnastics has probably had more success with diverse cultures than many judged sports… Look at Diving… look at ski sports… while you are at it, look at women’s collegiate Gymnastics… incredible diversity there ! Sorry, I am not jumping on the hatred bandwagon… that’s for politicians… not for sport !

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    1. Here’s what the fact checkers have to say:

      Both PoliticFact and Snopes have addressed this particular question and cited a 149% INCREASE in hate crimes against Asian-Americans even while hate crimes everywhere else have shown a 7% DECLINE. They both put the numerical total at roughly 3,800 “hate incidents” since the Pandemic started.

      https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/mar/19/hate-crimes-against-asian-americans-what-numbers-s/

      https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/surge-hate-crimes-against-asians/

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      1. Two more unreliable sources… I’ll listen to mine… you can listen to yours… always get a kick out of people who always think their right… I just posted this… and what does this have to do with the Pandemic… other than it was started in China and spread globally by the CCP !

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