update 3/20/2011: One year later Yun Na’s completely dropped off the planet as far as Americans are concerned. On the other hand, American marketers appear to have abandoned the American women as well. Still, as North American Asians perhaps we can be a bit miffed that here was a great opportunity for Canadians if not Americans to get behind a new world star.
Hail Queen Yun Na
Arthur Hu 3/4/2010 Seattle WA
It was only back in 1992 when America’s Kristi Yamaguchi and Japan’s Midori Ito were the first persons of Asian descent to win Olympic figure skating medals. Japan’s Shizuka got the first gold medal for figure skating for any Asian nation only in the last Turin Olympics. The Wall Street Journal noticed when it proclaims “a South Korean Teenager Leads an Emerging Group of Stars from the East” as Asian women from various nations dominating 3 of the top 4 top-billed women’s figure skating stars of the Winter Olympics. They were “redrawing the map of where skating stars come from “ signaling the “end of Europeans and North Americans own[ing] this sport”, Americans were disappointed that 2010 ended their medals streak. Korea’s Kim Yun-Na won gold, while arch-rival Mao Asada of Japan who had traded top titles with Yun-Na since 2004 got silver. Little-known Japanese America’s Nagasu Mirai at age 16 exceeded expectations by just missing the podium at fourth place, while the Boston Herald noted highly promoted Rachael Flatt ”struggles, finishes seventh” (with fourth place Mirai as a footnote, thanks for noticing) .
But it wasn’t just an Asian victory if we consider that Yun Na spent most of her time training in Canada. Count that with heartbreaker Joannie Rochette’s bronze finish, an equally dominant but different 3 out of 4 had trained in North America , and even Asada had trained with North Americans at some point. Yun-Na’s Canadian coach, Brian Orser had won silver medals as skater in 1984 and 1988, so many saw it as partially his first gold as well. Besides numerous other skaters from China, Japan and Korea, there was Cheltzie Lee of Australia who placed 20th. Her unusual background includes a father who is Chinese from Bangladesh, and her mother is African American from Louisiana in a year that didn’t have any other strong African descent skaters such as Debi Thomas (who is now a surgeon since I ran into her at Stanford Shopping Center).
The Olympics marks Yun-Na’s debut to American audiences, who are still probably more familiar with the name of Tonya Harding (Come to think of it, with a well placed tire wrench, all of the top 3 could have been Asian OWWWWW sorry about that). Sports Illustrated called Kim “queen of her court” and “will be ranked among the greatest Olympic Champions”, while calling Nagasu the “force at future games”.
After the initial fuss over whether Nancy Kerrigan got more endorsements than Yamaguchi , the LA Times in the 90s concluded that Yamaguchi ‘s deals were “as good as gold”. Certainly, Yamaguchi has emerged as the one featured dancing on television and still doing commercials aired during THESE Olympics. But in Korea, Kim Yun-Na is pretty much a publicity goddess. She made about $9 million in 1998 before winning any Olympic medals, compared to the $2 million Michelle Kwan or Tara Lipinski earned annually from endorsements in 2000. Traffic and stock trading in Korea stopped still to watch her skate as if it were the moon landing. She hawks products from Samsung to Hyundai. Her own branded cellphone sold a million copies, which would be gold or platinum if it were an American music single let alone an expensive consumer device in a 2nd tier industrialized consumer market. One clever banner proclaimed I “heart” YN (NY get it?)
Catholics also noticed her making the sign of the cross before her routines, thank goodness those “Freedom From Religion = Protest Mother Theresa” folks didn’t notice. She and her mother were baptized in May 2008. She’s a darling of Korean Americans, though I haven’t yet seen any schoolyard girls brawling over whether Japanese-Am Yamaguchi, Chinese-Am Kwan or Korean Kim are the greatest skaters of all time. Over in Asia , 10,000 indignant Korean hackers shut down Japan’s www.2ch.net over postings slighting their leading lady, evidently the final last straw after enduring the usual right-wing nationalist insults directed against Koreans and China. Canada’s Olympic strong showing clearly makes them stand out as more than just a more culturally refined appendage of America. But if Canada were truly serious, they should offer her dual citizenship, and to conquer America like the Beatles or Celine Dione, she should start by doing McDonalds commercials for the Great White North with her coach.
On the men’s side, Canada’s 19 yr old Patrick Chan of Toronto with parents from Hong Kong was played up as Canada’s Great Yellow Hope for a men’s gold medal. He finished fifth, which is nevertheless quite a strong showing for a first Olympics. With Japan’s Takahashi Daisuke winning bronze, Asians still placed 4 of the top 10 men’s figure skating places. Evan Lysacek, now headed for dancing with the Stars performed neater than Russia’s Yevgeny Plushenko who seemed to be a villain plucked out of a bad Yugi-Oh episode. He gave himself a “platinum” medal on his own website. LBGT bloggers lamented that Johnny Weir who always seemed dressed like a Tim Burton movie protagonist was “robbed”. (Of course there was less comment about the ladies outfits that made you wonder if you’d walked by these outfits at a Victoria Secret display window, or if you really saw what you thought you saw or just some fabric) While Wikipedia still wouldn’t divulge “is he or isn’t he” , the adoring Asian girls who handed him a giant black heart and oversized Hello Kitty seemed to like him just fine.
Ice dancing Asian-Americans Chris and Cathy Reed of New Jersey actually skated on the Japanese team. Their mother is from Japan and the family has dual-citizenship. But if that wasn’t interesting enough, their little sister Allison was skating for Georgia which gave her citizenship just for the games. She met the other fellow at her rink who also needed a partner. Cathy placed 17th, ahead of China’s Huang Xintong and Zheng Xun, while Allison and Otar Japaridize placed 22nd, so Asians have quite a ways to go in this event.
Allison ended up wearing an armband for the unfortunate luger Nodar Kumaritashvili who was flung onto a support pole with a clang. Of course that clip didn’t see seem to hurt as much as the slo-mo shots of women crashing down the hills like a spinning NASCAR with breaking skis, and charts comparing how much damage skier Lindsey Vonn had suffered compared to Evil Knievel. And it was different to see guys from China flying off a ramp like an upside-down helicopter successfully doing what used to be exclusively crazy California white kid stunts, if not yet winning medals.
Apolo Ohno became the most decorated American Olympic athlete with 8 medals (2 gold), though it was somewhat Ameri-centric for the announcers to loudly crow about YET ANOTHER MEDAL when the Koreans were cleaning up on 1st and 2nd place finishes ahead of him when they didn’t crack up. Given his appearances on TV and commercials, it appears that at least happa guys like Ohno and Celski don’t have the “male image” problem that seems to afflict the rest of us Asian guys. Crashes, bumps and barbs traded back and forth between Ohno and the Koreans have elevated Ohno hating beyond Korea’s usual Japan hating, as death threats in 2003 caused the American short track team to skip Korea, and he needed police guard to visit the country in 2005. On the women’s side, NBC headlined that Germany’s Jenny Wolf lead a “pack of Asians” (Could you write “pack of Caucasians???”) including Korea’s Lee Sang-Hwa and China’s Wang Beixing. Nevertheless, Korea may be getting over their inferiority complex knowing that they nearly matched Russia and beat China with 14 medals, 6 gold compared to Japan’s 5 medals, zero for gold, on top of Toyota’s killer floor mat problems.
If Asians were conspicuous by their absence in the opening ceremony, the bunch of young snowboarders that stormed out seemed to be dominated by Asians (both the east and the south Asian Indian kind) that you’d see around Richmond. Likewise, the orchestra which seemed to be dominated by young people had plenty of Asian faces. It’s too bad NBC didn’t spend more time highlighting the sights of Vancouver and Victoria, but it was pretty good exposure. Oh yeah, don’t forget that here in Washingon State we’ve got pretty much the same scenery and Native American culture without having to cross the border, and it’s just a 2 hour drive from here to get to Canada.
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