The Olympic Games, more so than any other sporting event, aim to connect people from all around the world. The opening and closing ceremonies conducted at every Olympics allow host nations to showcase their unique and diverse cultures. Olympians have the chance to represent their countries on a global stage; national pride and patriotism are as much a driving force as pure athleticism. However, American media coverage of last month’s Winter Olympics, hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea, ran contrary to the Olympics’ stated goal. Frankly, I was disappointed by the pure ignorance and cultural insensitivity of it all.
NBC, which owns the U.S. media rights to the Olympics, consistently mispronounced the name of the host city Pyeongchang, claiming that their Americanized pronunciation sounded “cleaner.” CNN broadcasted an investigative report on Korean dog farming as a part of their Olympics sports coverage. An Olympic analyst commented that, “every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation” during the opening ceremony, completely discounting Japan’s brutal annexation of the Korean peninsula less than 100 years ago.
While some of these media snafus may have been genuine mistakes, the disregard for South Korean culture and history left a bitter taste in my mouth, especially because I am the daughter of South Korean immigrants. My grandparents, who lived through Japanese control of Korea, were particularly enraged by the media’s apparent rewriting of the atrocities they experienced firsthand. Similarly, the emphasis on the cruelty of the dog farming industry also showed disdain for Asian culture. While dog farming is undoubtedly inhumane, CNN does not broadcast investigative reports on pig farming whenever it covers major sports games in North Carolina. Clearly, many of these blunders came from a Western attitude of cultural superiority and not just simple ignorance.
Unfortunately, American media treated Asian-American athletes with the same lack of cultural sensitivity. When American figure skater Mirai Nagasu landed a historic triple axel during the figure skating team competition, for example, New York Times op-ed writer and editor Bari Weiss tweeted out a line from the musical Hamilton: “Immigrants: they get the job done.” Nagasu, however, while a child of immigrants, is not an immigrant herself: she was born and raised in California. It seems like a minor distinction, but Asian-Americans are too often treated as if they are inherently foreign simply because of their ethnicity. This “perpetual foreigner” stereotype manifests itself in many ways, from the constant questioning of “where are you really from?” to the portrayal of Asian-Americans as fundamentally incompatible with American society. Even if her intentions were good, Weiss’ tweet played into this all-too-common stereotype.
When my mother saw the headlines about the controversy over Weiss’ tweet, she remarked disappointedly that it reminded her of a previous Olympics controversy. During the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, MSNBC ran the headline “American Beats Out Kwan” after Tara Lipinski, a blonde, white American, defeated Michelle Kwan, a Chinese American, for the Olympic gold medal. It’s regrettable that little change seems to have been made in the twenty years since.
The disrespect shown to both South Korean culture and Asian-American athletes during this year’s Olympics felt personal to me. But I want to challenge everyone to examine their own biases and how that plays into their actions. The media coverage of the Olympics revealed that cultural ignorance is still endemic in American society, and that’s something that affects everyone.