Sports, Race, and Imagination

I came across this article in the New York Times, A Country Feels a Hurdler’s Pain, and was at first surprised that there would be such a reaction to one runner being unable to compete.  It made more sense when I read further in the article and read this quote by the runner, China’s Liu Xiang:

“It is kind of a miracle,” Liu said. “It is unbelievable — a Chinese, an Asian, has won this event. It is a proud moment not only for China but for Asia and all people who share the same yellow skin color.”

“Please pay attention to Chinese track and field,” he said. “I think we Chinese can unleash a yellow tornado on the world.”

and the accompanying commentary:

Please note these are not the ravings of a Western journalist. These are the words of Liu — reasonable enough, since he had just become the first Chinese male ever to win a gold medal in Olympic track and field.

This was not some foolish boast of racial superiority, just an assertion of standing tall against the world. Liu was suggesting that a Chinese man could reach the level of Rafael Nadal of tennis or Kobe Bryant of basketball or Ronaldinho of football or Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, who sprang from other continents.

I can see why the prospect of a Champion Chinese sprinter would be a big deal.  I loved sports as a kid, but of all of the heroes of Ohio Sports at the time Bernie Kosar, Mark Price, and countless baseball players whose names now escape me – none of them were Asian, looked like me, or my father, or my paternal relatives.  I think it’s hard with institutions, like pro sports, that seem so important, to feel like you don’t really have a place in this world.  This is connected to ideas of masculinity too and a global event like the Olympics and the things that people invest in it make me think about the possibility of a  globalized masculine ideal.  To be sure there are many talented, respected, championed Asian athletes.  However, none come to mind that rise to the top in the contests that seem to define a certain ideal of manhood – absolute strength and speed.

For a long time I’ve wanted to interview my friends who are Asian about their experience, because it’s something that doesn’t seem to have much space to be discussed otherwise.  I’ve only gotten to interview one friend so far, and the thing that surprised me the most when he spoke about his experience of being Asian in a small Indiana town was that what defined his sense of difference was size.  He was just smaller than most of his other male peers.  In retrospect, this was important to me too.  One way of being a boy, one centered around strength and power and physical presence just felt closed to me.  This is probably for the best, and I should feel glad that I managed to find things that gave me attention, that garnered respect, that made me feel like an expert, chances to lead or make decisions, all the subconscious expectations that are important to many people, but that I have always felt were tied to maleness.  I can still remember that sinking feeling though, of surveying the territory and hearing the hum of voices insisting, “this is not for you.”