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Why Nathan Chen’s history-making gold medal is so significant

After Chen became the first Asian American man to medal in figure skating singles, historians pointed to a past of sports gatekeeping for the community.
Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen of the U.S. during the men's single free skating event at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games on Thursday.Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

Figure skater Nathan Chen made history at the Beijing Olympics, becoming the first Asian American man to earn an Olympic medal in men’s figure skating singles. His win was a moment of pride, particularly for the Asian American community.

“My hope is that Nathan Chen’s historic win reminds us of the potential and the achievements of immigrants, their descendants, and Asian Americans in U.S. sports and Olympic history,” Catherine Ceniza Choy, author of the forthcoming book “Asian American Histories of the United States,” told NBC Asian America.

The 22-year-old has been poised to win gold after several years on top in the world standings. After a record-breaking score in the short program earlier this week, Chen delivered with another exceptional free skate, crediting fellow Asian American Olympic icon Michelle Kwan as his inspiration. 

Experts pointed out that it’s especially poignant because of a history of gatekeeping of sports for Asian Americans.

Just over a century before Chen stepped onto the podium to accept his medal for the U.S. in front of the world stage, with the national anthem blaring from the speakers, people of Chinese descent were barred from any semblance of the American dream.

“Exclusion laws kept people of Asian descent out of the country and did not allow their naturalization. Those weren’t really taken away until after the Second World War,” Josephine Lee, professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said. “A lot of people still don’t know this history — that these were racial exclusions that kept the population of Asian Americans low.” 

Not only was Chinese immigration stifled during the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — which first put a 10-year moratorium on any Chinese labor immigration to the U.S. and was subsequently extended through additional policies well into the 1900s — Asian American participation in mainstream cultural institutions was not feasible whatsoever. 

Choy explained that at the time, men in the community were seen as nonhuman, let alone American, “filthy, immoral, harbingers of disease.” Sports culture, she said, was primarily accessible through segregated sports leagues.

These spaces, while originating in the late 19th century, persisted well into the 1900s, historian Ellen Wu, author of “The Color of Success,” explained.

“Like all Americans, Asian Americans love sports, but certainly there was social segregation,” Wu said. “There is a history of Asian Americans forming their own sports leagues in basketball, tennis and bowling.” 

Sports also became an arena in which Asian Americans mobilized, declaring their place in the United States. Wu explained that they organized, involving other marginalized groups in the process, to desegregate major bowling organizations. 

However, Choy noted that many of the archaic stereotypes as perpetual foreigners have continued to linger, contributing to an underrepresentation of Asian Americans at the most elite levels of sport. And the spirit behind the exclusionary policies persists, even if they’re not explicitly codified, Lee said.

“Exclusion laws were repealed, so they don’t really exist in that kind of current state,” Lee explained. “But that anti-Asian feeling that both fostered the laws and then kind of grew.”

After all, Lee said, Chen’s win comes amid years of pandemic-fueled racism, built upon the centuries-old anti-Asian racism. His success, Lee cautioned, shouldn’t be interpreted as definitive proof of racial progress in the U.S. And as the pandemic-fueled violence shows, Asian Americans continue to contend with the trope that they aren’t part of the American fabric. 

Wu added that perhaps Chen’s extraordinary, almost herculean abilities could have potentially mitigated Americans’ reluctance to accept someone of Asian descent as the face of U.S. figure skating.

“There are certainly people that did not really think of Michael Jordan as Black but just as this amazing, superhuman basketball player,” she said. “There’s something like you have to be so extraordinarily exceptional.”

Rather than painting Chen’s win as a racial victory, Choy said he stands as a symbol of skill and determination in the face of a history of anti-Asian bias.

With the win secured in China, Lee explained, Chen’s story is ultimately a meaningful one that captures the transnational histories of so many Asian Americans.

“How great it is to have a win in a country where you have family roots,” Lee said. “That’s sort of beyond affirming oneself as American. That’s affirming your whole history.”