(TW: Racist language)
Olympic All-Around gold medalist Sunisa Lee told Pop Sugar in an interview published on Wednesday that she and her friends were the victims of a racist attack several weeks ago in Los Angeles. Lee, 18, was the first Hmong American to ever participate in the Olympic Games for the United States. After her unexpected win following Simone Biles’ choice to step out of the all-around competition due to mental health, she was hailed as a role model for Asian American athletes throughout the country.
Lee said in the interview that she was waiting for an Uber one night with a group of friends, all of whom are of Asian descent, when a car sped by them full of passengers yelling out anti-Asian slurs like “ching chong.” She said that one of the passengers attempted to pepper spray the group of girls from the moving car, though they only hit Lee’s arm, and that they yelled out “go back to where you came from.”
Anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 73 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to FBI data. Some experts believe that the rise has been driven by media coverage of the coronavirus, which originated in China. This isn’t the first occurrence of its kind, either — just a few months ago, a man in southern California was charged with a hate crime after threatening Japanese American Olympian Sakura Kokumai, threatening her and spitting at her in a public park.
Perhaps the most highly publicized hate crime was a mass shooting in Atlanta in March 2021. The shooter killed eight people in a rampage that covered three spas, and six of the victims were Asian women.
Asian American athletes have come forward throughout the pandemic to share their experiences not only with public bullying, but with name-calling from their peers, including Taiwanese American NBA player Jeremy Lin, who said that he was called “coronavirus” by one of his opponents while on the court. As much as we might like to believe that our country’s professional athletes are the toughest, the strongest, the most untouchable among us, this trend demonstrates once again that sports are simply a very public microcosm of our society, vulnerable to the exact issues that the greater population faces on a daily basis.