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A quick thanks to Vivien Lee, Blake Abbie, Stand At Yale and Junshin Soga for bouncing around ideas and thoughts for this week's newsletter. 

July 29, 2020 · Curated by Lulu Yao Gioiello, edited by Ariana King

If all had gone according to plan, the 2020 Olympics would have begun last Thursday, July 23, in Tokyo, Japan.

While the mainstream media and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sell the myth of the Olympics as a peace-promoting institution honoring the Ancient Greek tradition, the games we know today were created in 1894 by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and have been rife with racial and social class prejudice ever since. The full-time amateur athlete policy, started by Coubertin and only minimally phased out in 1988, meant that participating athletes were prohibited from earning money from sport. The policy created a class divide in which only self-funded, non-professional athletes could participate in the Olympics. This upper-class, white "gentleman's club" reflected the leadership of the IOC. At the first Olympic games in 1896, of the 14 nations participating, Chile was the only nation that could be considered non-white. The Chilean team had one athlete. 

Becky Scott, a cross country skiing gold medalist said: "Sport has historically consolidated a majority of its power at the top level, leaving athletes out of the equation and powerless to influence the decisions that affect them the most. It's a business model that has worked very well for a very long time for some. But the foundation of the model needs to shift in order to grow and stay current." The Games have also notoriously omitted countries pitted against Western nations during wartime and banned any sort of protest by athletes as cause for disqualification. Notably, in 1936, Hitler hosted the first televised Summer Olympics in Berlin and used his power to sideline and remove all but one Jewish athlete from participating in the Games. That same year, Sohn Kee-Chung became the first Korean to win a gold medal under the Japanese flag — as Korea had been annexed in 1910. He broke a world record in 1935, winning the race by two minutes. At the podium, he covered the Japan flag with an oak tree, and is said to have signed his name with an illustration of the Korean Peninsula. More than 80 years later, Asia has again come under the Olympic spotlight: South Korea held a politically significant 2018 Winter Olympics, marking the first instance since the Korean War a North Korean representative visited the South Korean side of the border; Japan has postponed the 2020 Summer Olympics amid a global pandemic and Beijing is slated to hold the 2022 Winter Olympics.

While past Olympic Games around the world have had no shortage of controversies relating to human rights abuses, censorship, doping, bribes, political decision-making, the commodification and appropriation of indigenous culture and displacement of peoples for commercial gains, we will use this opportunity to cover specific moments that pertain to Asian and anti-racism contexts.

Flying Flags and Raising Fists

In 2016, the world was ecstatic after seeing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pop out of a Mario portal. As the Games drew closer, however, criticism and injustice came to the forefront of the 2020 Olympics. There was controversy over who would design the new stadium, speculation about whether Japan would relax its laws on tattoos, and, after being incredibly slow to announce postponement due to COVID-19, Japan's government and the IOC continued to censor opposition voices. The IOC has used "political neutrality" to ban kneeling and hand gestures, in what seems to be a calculated effort to keep Black athletes from showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Abe himself is at the heart of an equally political and controversial conversation about whether or not to ban a flag that draws comparisons to the Nazi Swastika and the Confederate flag of the U.S.

At the center of this discussion is a symbol that links to Japan's history of imperialist atrocities in China, Korea, and elsewhere. During the Nanjing Massacre in 1937 and 1938, the Imperialist military killed upwards of 200,000-300,000 people, and raped and tortured countless women under the Kyokujitsu-ki, or rising sun flag (旭日旗). South Koreans continue to feel anger over the flag as a symbol of the Japanese government's failure to acknowledge and apologize for the kidnapping and abuse of Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese and Filipino women as so-called comfort women for the Japanese military. The number of abducted women is still debated today, as the military destroyed documentation after their defeat. Estimates range from 20,000-410,000. A written record from April 1939 by the head of the medical squad in the 21st Army in Shanghai states there was 1 woman for 100 soldiers.

Shinzo Abe and his current government have been doing as much as possible to bury their dark past and push patriotism. Abe is part of the Nippon Kaigi, Japan's ultra-right wing and revisionist party, a group which has sent requests to the U.S. government to revise or limit negative coverage of Japanese Imperialism in American textbooks. They have already done so within Japan. Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was nicknamed "Devil of Shōwa" (昭和の妖怪) for the atrocities he oversaw during Japanese rule over Manchuria. He was labeled a Class-A war criminal and then released from prison when the U.S. deemed him an ally for a conservative, anti-Communist Japanese government. He served as Prime Minister 1957-1960.

In an article by Peter Ford for the Christian Science Monitor, "Why Asia is still fighting over World War II", Sunao Tsuboi, an atom bomb survivor, said “Japan has always talked about its own suffering” and emphasized its own victimhood. "There should be more memorials to those who suffered from Japanese aggression,” said Tsuboi. 

According to Ford, "Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is showing no signs he is ready to express the type of contrition that some of his predecessors have voiced in the past. The ramifications of this are now reverberating around the globe." If the rising sun flag is allowed to appear in the crowd at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, as appears likely, that blatant lack of remorse will be clear as day.
Quote, Think, Read, Listen

Comfort Women: Historical Denialism and Revisionism

Join Stand At Yale with Professor Yomomi Yamaguchi and Professor Jeff Kingston in their biweekly webinar on comfort women. This week covers historical denialism and revisionism, July 31, Friday, 8 PM EST.

평창유감 (Regrets for PyeongChang)

During the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, some South Koreans raised concerns and protested what they viewed as pro-unification, pro-North Korea politically driven decisions by the government in Seoul. One form of protest was visible through the viral hip hop song 평창유감 (Regrets for PyeongChang) by Boy Bugs, which gained over 1 million views on their YouTube channel. Although the Korea women's national ice hockey team played as a united team under a unified Korean flag, peace talks have been at a standstill since 2019.

Olympic protests are part of Games history

There is a long history of protest around the Olympic Games, from the locals who do not want their city to host the event, the IOC, governments, to the athletes themselves.

The Savage Olympics of 1904

White imperialism as a fundamental part of the Olympics can be traced back over 100 years ago to a racist experiment in 1904.
  1. When watching sports (especially international games), observe the language used to describe athletes of different backgrounds. Do you notice a difference?
  2. Observe your own opinions of Olympic teams from different cultures. Do you have any inherent bias?
  3. What are some anti-racism symbols that you think are beneficial? Do you know the context and history of these symbols? 

We are currently working to develop an online forum for discussion. In the meantime, we encourage you to share your responses to these questions, thoughts and feedback with We may request permission to post your response on social media.

A Little Joy – The Olympic Athletes that Stood, Kneeled, Boycotted and Bowed for Justice

When Sohn Kee-Chung decided to pursue a career in running, his mother told him "If you really like to run, do what you must. but you must endure all of the pains to succeed." He went on to become the first Korean Olympic gold medalist, but had to do so under Japan rule with the name "Kitei Son." He is said to have signed his name with a drawing of the Korean Peninsula. Years later after Korean independence, he led the South Korean team in the opening ceremony.

Read more about him

Feyisa Lilesa is a long-distance runner from Ethiopia. A member of the Oromo people, he became the youngest man to run the men's marathon in under 2 hours and 6 minutes. At the 2016 Summer Olympics, he crossed his fists to protest the potential relocation of his peoples for industrial gains. He went into self-imposed exile in the U.S. until returning home last year.

Read more about him

Amazin Lethi is a Vietnamese-American Olympic weight-training coach and an LGBTQ activist. Her goal is to grow representation of Asian athletes in sports and to inspire LGBTQ athletes to have the courage to come out.

Check out her website

The 1936 Berlin Games forced American athletes to decide how best to object to Adolf Hitler’s Aryan agenda. Harvard track star Milton Green, fencer Albert Wolff of France and basketball players from Long Island University chose not to participate in protest of the virulent anti-Semitism in Germany. On the other hand, track stars Jesse Owens and Mack Robinson elected to compete to put the lie to Hitler’s precepts of a master race. Owens won four gold medals.

Learn more about the athletes that protested the 1936 Berlin Games

A Little More Joy – 2020 Olympic Posters by Artists Around the World

Artists around the world were commissioned to create beautiful posters for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. They aimed to leave cultural and artistic legacies for the Games. Pictured above is filmmaker and photographer Mika Ninagawa's poster for the Paralympics.

View the rest here
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