When you see a runner give up on a potential podium place to help an injured opponent or two athletes from different countries conversing and joking around before their event, it's easy to believe that all is right in the world, that everybody gets along and we are separated only by distance and not disposition. I’m sure that most Olympics-watchers have top contenders that they root for, but rarely do we have people we don’t want to win—at the end of the day, the rivalries are pleasantly resolved. Usually, the most deserving athlete gets the prize. My family and I love watching the figure skating events, and we always have favorites that we cheer for; we’re particularly fond of America’s favorite Nathan Chen and Palo Alto’s very own Vincent Zhou (who unfortunately had to miss out this Olympics because of COVID); I'm also a recent fan of new Olympic figure skater Alysa Liu.
When it comes to the events I’m less familiar with, however, I have trouble choosing favorites. Instead, I often cheer for athletes based simply on one of two factors: their personality (maybe from a small grin they shot at the camera before their race) or the country they represent.
I root for the American athletes, of course, but I’ve always felt conflicted on whether or not it was okay for me to cheer for the Chinese competitors as well. My parents are Chinese, I am Chinese, and many of my friends are, too. Much like the other Asian Americans here, I’ve grown up learning American ideals and Chinese culture in tandem. Naturally, I feel a sort of allyship with the Chinese athletes—I see myself in them. Just like them, I know that red means luck, I enjoy home-cooked Chinese food almost every night, and I speak Mandarin at home (albeit with a little bit of English slipped in).
But when it comes to the Olympics, in part because of the rising tensions between the two countries and the ways that many Americans perceive China, I’ve felt a bit awkward rooting for these Chinese athletes. It might seem silly, but it’s hard not to link the negative sentiments about China that dominate my news feeds to the athletes that are representing the country. If I cheer for a Chinese skier, does that mean I support the entire country and its government’s deeds? Is it okay for me to feel a surge of pride when a Chinese athlete makes it to the podium? I have no trouble celebrating when an American makes it onto the stage, but when it comes to their Chinese counterparts, I sometimes get the feeling that I should be ashamed.
Watching Chinese American freestyle skier Eileen Gu receive backlash from Americans for representing China, I realize that I can’t simply separate the Olympic games from these ever-present political divides. On the flip side of the coin, California-born Chinese figure skater Zhu Yi faces similarly heinous comments from Chinese citizens for representing China and falling on her Olympic debut skate. Because of the uncomfortable tension between the two countries, Olympic athletes often find themselves caught in the crossfire of foreign diplomatic warfare. And on a lower scale, I understand their pain. I face a difficult tug-of-war of emotion; on one side, there’s the country I’ve called home all my life, along with the troubling current events and human rights allegations. On the other side, there’s a deep pride for and kinship with my culture and family that I can't ignore; it's not a easy task to renounce the heritage that's central to who I am today.
I don’t have a right answer for this dilemma. I do hope, however, that we can find it within ourselves to be kinder and more forgiving to these young athletes; they are first and foremost athletes, beyond being teenagers who inadvertently and unintentionally became international talking points and objects of diplomatic debates. In the same vein, I hope we can also become more understanding of the alienation that recent or second generation immigrants face when having to decide between their old roots and their new ones. While this push-and-pull manifests louder during the Olympics, it's a struggle we face every day.