Asian American Olympians Shine for Team USA in Rio

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by Andrea Moneton
Chinese American swimmer Nathan Adrian won four medals in various swimming events, the most of any Asian American athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Image: Agencia Brasil via Wikimedia Commons.

Every four years, the Olympic Games offer nations the opportunity to showcase their best athletes in a variety of sports. This year in Rio de Janeiro, Team USA sent 558 athletes to the Olympics, including 30 Asian Americans. Demonstrating their skill across multiple sports, Asian American athletes competed in badminton, fencing, rhythmic gymnastics, shooting, swimming, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, and indoor volleyball events. Overall, just over 5% of Team USA consisted of Asian Americans, a similar proportion to the share of Asian Americans in the total US population, estimated in 2013 at approximately 5% by the US Census Bureau.

Asian American athletes were essential to US participation in certain sports. For example, the United States badminton and table tennis teams were made up entirely of Asian Americans. Although the table tennis team, made up of five Chinese Americans and one Indian American, did not bring home any medals, it featured some notable athletes. Kanak Jha, at age 16, was the youngest male athlete ever to compete in that sport. Lily Zhang, who won a bronze medal at the Nanjing Youth Olympics in 2014, is the only American table tennis player to have won a medal at either the Olympics or Youth Olympics.

In other sports, Asian American athletes also contributed Team USA’s medal count, especially in swimming, where Chinese American swimmer Nathan Adrian picked up two bronze medals and swam for relay teams that won gold in two events. Adrian, perhaps the most well-known Asian American athlete on Team USA, also won medals in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. In 2014, Adrian was inducted into the Robert Chinn Foundation’s Asian Hall of Fame, where he joined a fellow Olympian, the Japanese American speed skater Apolo Ohno.

In the Olympic tennis mixed doubles tournament, Indian American Rajeev Ram won a silver medal with teammate Venus Williams. Taiwanese American fencers Gerek Meindhart and Alex Massialas also shined in both individual and team events; Massialas won an individual silver medal and both he and Meindhart helped carry the team to bronze. Three Japanese American athletes from Honolulu played on the men’s volleyball team that brought home bronze as well.

Asian American athletes have played an important role in other American sporting events as well. At the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, multiple Asian American athletes competed for Team USA and won medals in speed skating and ice hockey. Outside of the Olympics, the United States has been a popular destination for Asian athletes, and many now compete in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.

Andrea Moneton is a former Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.