The Tokyo Olympics, In Retrospect

No. 43


I am Yifan Wu, an assignment editor at ESPN International. My job is weird and it’s been a struggle to write my resume and LinkedIn page, so for now let’s just say I get paid to watch sports. 

July was intense: I worked on the NBA playoffs, Euro 2020, Copa America, the Concacaf Gold Cup and the Olympics. I woke up to quite a few “have you seen this NYT piece?” messages over the month. I’m not here to talk about that bombshell about my employer’s NBA playoffs coverage. But I am uncomfortable with this headline and this Twitter post about Chinese Olympians. It ignited a group chat among my fellow Asian journalists: why are Asian robot tropes still so casually deployed in the year of 2021? 

To some extent, I appreciated the coverage on how the laser focus on Olympic gold medals has shaped the lives of China’s female weightlifters. Reporting nuggets like a former national champion growing a beard from doping can inform the audience about a system that robs these women of the chance to receive education or carve out their own lives. Yet, as a sports editor, I instinctively recoiled from phrases such as “Chinese Sports Assembly Line” and headlines like “The Chinese Sports Machine’s Single Goal.”

Framing stories in a way that strips athletes of their humanity and agency is ill-advised. These women, who look like me and sound like me (or maybe not, given my heavy Tieling accent) are rendered into whatever persona that American media deems fit for the China narrative of the day. After the Atlanta shooting, USA Today published a piece about Xiaojie Tan, one of the eight victims, but through the lens of her ex-husband, a long-time friend and customer, who shared stories about how much she wanted to be American and a business owner. It revealed nothing about her as a person under the model minority mold. 

What truly triggered the Asian journalists in our group chat, myself included, is that we all have some wear and tear from hearing similar rhetoric over the years, both inside and outside of the newsroom. During my first year of grad school, my Ohioan roommate’s father misheard “Yifan” and asked if I said my name was “iPhone.” Two months ago at a Denver Nuggets game, a journalist made an unprompted comment that I had a lot of personality for an Asian woman. 

Had we been indeed a machine-made object, like an iPhone (and apparently my namesake), we could’ve cleared the cache and cookie settings and brushed off these words without feeling hurt. For me, a sports editor, New York Times reader and someone installed with a made-in-China operating system, would not find a headline like this couldn’t hurt the feelings I am incapable of having. While the gaslight burns bright, I could carry on with a “404 emotions not found.” 

Now that we have some time to reflect on the Tokyo Olympics, I ask my fellow storytellers: Both inside and outside of China, how did the media coverage and discussions on social media revolve around the games? How should we, as journalists, tell the stories of the Olympics?  


Yifan Wu

(Yifan Wu on the first right with colleagues at Game 3 of the playoff series between Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers. Courtesy of Yifan Wu)

(Chinese Storytellers is an inclusive community of media professionals. This newsletter features some members’ personal testimonies and opinions, which do not speak for the community as a whole.)

The Olympic Watchers 张望奥运

Yurui Wu, a journalism student at Northwestern University and avid sports fan: 

I devoured the Olympics coverage this summer. The competitions were exciting as ever, and the athletes’ performances were amazing. But as I watched the Olympics coverage in mainland China, its toxic nationalism troubled me. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with cultivating national unity through sports, but it can be overdone. Social media and most news coverage, over-emphasizedChinese athletes. I routinely read news stories that only mentioned the name of the Chinese athlete who participated in the event. The other medalists would be identified as athletes from a certain country without acknowledging their individual accomplishments. Moreover, this kind of reporting guides the public to believe that the only reason a person deserves attention is because of his or her nationality. The nationalistic fervor peaked after a controversial referee decision in several marquee matchups between Chinese and Japanese athletes in table tennis and gymnastics. Netizens in China accused the host country of cheating their way to victories. Although the accusations were mostly unfounded, many Chinese “fans” directed abusive and xenophobic attacks toward Japanese athletes on social media. Trolls then seized these opportunities to ridicule all things Japanese, going well beyond the realm of sports. For days, dozens of hashtags evoking anti-Japanese sentiment trended on Weibo. And yet, mainland Chinese media largely stayed quiet on this matter, effectively condoning xenophobic hate speech. 

As I watched this bigotry spread online, and reflected on how mass media shapes public opinion and distorts collective memories, I was reminded both of the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes worldwide in the past year, as well as the harassment that foreign journalists had suffered while reporting on flooding in Henan just the week before. All of the Olympic-induced rhetoric only became more chilling to witness.

In Tokyo, almost every athlete had to represent a country. The International Olympics Committee wishes to stay away from politics, but there is nothing more political than forming a nation from an imagined community. I don’t know what the alternative is, but I wish the abstract idea of nationhood could play a lesser role in the Olympics. 

Youyou Zhou, a freelance data journalist currently based in Shanghai:

I was immersed in Shanghai’s humid summer when the Tokyo Olympics took place. Mainstream social platforms in China constantly pushed notifications, which were typically titled “One more Gold!” referring to China’s national team. When my phone buzzed, it usually signaled breaking news alerts from the New York Times and Associated Press — “U.S. women win seventh straight gold medal in basketball,” “U.S. women's team win gold in 4x400-meter relay,” etc. Although the Olympics is international, news only breaks for the country relevant to the audience. 

I didn’t watch a single game during the Olympics because I believed that it was an event for everyone except sports fans. Fans do not wait for four years to see their favorite players or teams. The event is for the general public. The same goes for newsrooms. The Olympics isn’t an event for the sports desk. Every reporter from every desk tries to put a news peg onto it. So do the China watchers. 

Some reporters on the China beat took the peg and wrote about China as a rising threat, equipped with a repressive political system that produces athletes as warriors. They cut through the Olympics framing to reach their presumptive opinions. They are not sports reporters— so I don't blame them — but where are the sports reporters who are supposed to give us some real insights on the lives of Chinese athletes and sports? 

Jessie Lau, Hong Kong freelance journalist based in London:

The Tokyo Olympics came at an incredibly fraught time for Hong Kong. On the surface, the city had its most successful Olympics ever, with fencer Cheung Ka-long winning Hong Kong’s first gold medal since the 1997 handover, and swimmer Siobhan Haughey taking home two silver medals. For the first time since the national security law, Hongkongers (especially young people) were able to safely express their pride and love for Hong Kong. It was a moment of euphoria and relief from the ongoing political crackdown. 

But it all quickly came crashing down. When a crowd of spectators booed over the Chinese national anthem during a public screening of the award ceremony, police launched an investigation and arrested a 40-year-old man (who waved a colonial-era flag and urged others to “boo”) for insulting the national anthem. It marked the first arrest under the controversial new anthem law that came into effect last year. A badminton player was criticized by a pro-Beijing politician for wearing a black T-shirt (a symbol of the 2019 protests) without the Hong Kong SAR logo and accused of supporting the pro-democracy movement. The player changed, but was fiercely attacked by online trolls. 

Other cracks also emerged: Haughey (who is of Irish and Hong Kong descent) was referred to as a “mixed-race mermaid” in an article by the South China Morning Post. After widespread outrage, the paper removed the phrase, but the controversy shone a light on the city’s endemic problem with racism. There were also concerns about the Hong Kong team’s future as an entity independent of mainland China. So, while the city did have a moment of respite—it was a fleeting one.

Wufei Yu, editorial fellow at High Country News based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and writer often on China, sports and outdoor adventures:

During the Tokyo games, a healthy dose of content about the athletes’ physical qualities and off-the-court individualities alleviated my many doubts about the Olympics and the Olympism ideal that they had promoted since the 1890s. The goal of Olympism is to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind.” Yet, for over a century, the IOC has rubbed shoulders with a whole range of regimes and ideologies, from fascism to imperialism to racist apartheid. Nowadays, given that social media allow everyone to speak their minds without consequences, the Olympics has sparked jingoistic, misogynistic, homophobic and conspiratorial conversations every two or four years, such that it has now become force driving people apart instead of one that brings the world together. During a global pandemic, at a moment when the Olympics induces more doubt than hope, perhaps it is only the individual athletes who still embody the Game’s lofty goal of idealism and internationalism. 

Yet some journalists prefer to quote online trolls instead of reaching out to athletes, to dig deeper into their personal stories. They reduce the uniqueness and athleticism of every Olympian to a nugget in their big-picture, to fit pre-conceived stories that amuse their viewers or readers. 

China’s weightlifters often share their training methods and crack jokes with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram. But without talking to or direct-messaging them (if they did, they would have specified), The New York Times told the world that the weightlifters were no more than a part of the country’s “sports assembly line.” Before the Olympics, Korean table tennis player Jeoung Young-Sik completed a roughly 1.5-year-long military service and assisted Korea’s early fight against COVID-19. However, a commentator for ERT, the Greek flagship television, took more interest in his look, saying “their eyes are narrow so I can’t understand how they can see the ball moving back and forth.” Similarly, an NBC Olympics announcer chuckled at Alex Hua Tian’s dual identity struggle as he started his ride. The 31-year-old equestrian, a four-time Olympian born to a Chinese dad and British mom, was reduced to someone who spoke with a British accent and would be confused by a question about his identity.

I could go on and on about these moments of gaslighting. What’s problematic is not just the insufficient background research, unfair reporting, and lazy journalism, but also the disrespectful exploitation of athletes to increase viewership, readership and web traffic. Social media have made athletes’ off-the-court lives more accessible, and we as journalists should seize this opportunity to produce athlete-centric stories beyond the scores.

Writers: Yifan Wu, Yurui Wu, Youyou Zhou, Jessie Lau, Wufei Yu; Editor: Wufei Yu, Xinyan Yu; Copy Editor: Yi-Ling Liu

Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.