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Tea Leaves

Biggest challenge for Asia's star athletes is Western stereotypes

Sports fans refer to many in condescending terms

South Korea's Son Heung-min, right, has become a poster boy for the most popular soccer league in the world. His face was recently emblazoned on billboards in British cities alongside that of Hollywood icon Tom Hanks. (Photo by John Duerden)

Over the years, my job covering Asian sport has sometimes brought smiles of sympathy from counterparts in other continents. Take soccer: South America sees itself as a passionate hotbed, Europe attracts the best-quality players, while Africa has the raw talent. And Asia? The cultures are seen as fascinating, but the players have never been lauded for their talent.

Until now. South Korea's Son Heung-min has been widely acclaimed as one of the most exciting and explosive players in world soccer, challenging the traditional stereotype of Asian soccer players as hardworking, energetic and team-spirited, but lacking in flair and creativity.

That challenge moved up a level in December as Son received the 2020 Puskas Award from FIFA, the sport's world governing body, which gives the annual prize to the professional player who is judged to have scored the best goal on the entire planet in the previous 12 months.

And it was a beauty. In December 2019, Son dribbled the ball past six opponents over 70 meters before scoring for his team, Tottenham Hotspur, in a match before 60,000 fans against Burnley in the English Premier League. There is a clip on YouTube that shows the goal replayed over and over again, with commentary in numerous languages.

Paul Wozney, Burnley's head of football development, may not have enjoyed the goal, but he appreciated Son's skill and appeal. "He is a pinup boy, really," Wozney told Nikkei Asia. "Son is a natural athlete, has a winning mentality and he plays fair, and people like that. He is so marketable; people don't care where he is from as he is so exciting."

Even a few years ago, the idea that an Asian player could become a major attraction in the English Premier League was almost unimaginable. Yet Son, 28, has literally become a poster boy for the most popular soccer league in the world. His face was recently emblazoned on billboards in British cities -- alongside that of Hollywood icon Tom Hanks -- to highlight the offerings of a major cable television provider during the Christmas holidays.

But Asian athletes who are seen as both exciting talents and marketable figures worldwide are still relatively rare. There have been a number of South Korean and Japanese baseball players who have achieved success in the U.S., such as Park Chan-ho and Ichiro Suzuki, but their exploits have gone unnoticed by much of the international community.

Jeremy Lin was different. He briefly became a basketball sensation in 2012 for the New York Knicks, so much so that the phenomenon was called "Linsanity." Despite his fame, Lin, born in California to parents who had immigrated from Taiwan, struggled against a stereotypical view of Asian athletes.

In December 2019, Son dribbled the ball past six opponents over 70 meters before scoring for his team, Tottenham Hotspur, in a match before 60,000 fans against Burnley in the English Premier League.   © Reuters

Lin later said that the U.S. was not quite ready to accept Asian Americans in sports, and that the language used to describe himself and his fellow black draftee John Wall was different.

"He was 'athletic,' and I was 'deceptively athletic.' I've been deceptively 'whatever' my whole life," Lin said. "Hopefully, we'll just keep being good and breaking the stereotypes. ... I think we just need to keep being ourselves and the world will eventually come around and appreciate us Asians."

Linsanity did not last long, but other Asian talents have been at the top for much longer, and not everyone has been welcoming. This was the case for South Korean women in golf, which became an issue around 20 years ago. "This is probably going to get me in trouble, but the Asians are killing our tour. Absolutely killing it," Australian golfer Jan Stephenson said in 2003. "Their lack of emotion, their refusal to speak English when they can speak English."

Attitudes seem to have changed little since then. Prominent golf instructor Hank Haney said ahead of the 2019 U.S. Women's Open that, "I couldn't name you six players on the [Ladies Professional Golf Association] tour. Maybe I could. Well ... I'd go with 'Lee,' if I didn't have to name a first name. I'd get a bunch of them right."

Randell Mell, a TV journalist working for the U.S. Gold Channel, lamented about such comments concerning successful South Korean female golfers. "Too many in golf aren't bothering to see the charms that Park [In-bee], Ryu [So-yeon], Choi [Na-yeon] and other ambassadors bring to the women's game," he said. "It's troubling when they won't bother to see beyond stereotypes."

Even in soccer, the qualities of Asian players are often described more in terms of their ability to help clubs increase their fan base and revenues in the "Far East" rather than their athletic skill.

Subtle prejudice has dogged even successful players such as Park Ji-sung, a South Korean who won four English Premier League titles in his seven years, from 2005 to 2012, with Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world. He also became the first Asian player to win the most prestigious prize in the world of club soccer, the UEFA Champions League.

The intelligent midfield player was nicknamed "Three-Lung Park" and "The Duracell Bunny" by Manchester United fans for his energy and persistence. "Those perceptions of Asian players, that they're hard working and energetic, also seem to imply that they have no other discernible skills and that they have no choice but to be hard working and energetic just to stay on the field," said Yoo Jee-ho, a sports reporter for South Korea's news agency Yonhap News. "Park had that 'Three-Lung' moniker for a reason. He was always seen as this tiny Asian guy who ran around a lot and who kept grinding every day."

"There are lots of stereotypes about Asians in the west, few flattering," said David Goldblatt, a prominent soccer academic, author and sociologist. "The sly and inscrutable Chinese, the regimented Japanese, the workaholic salaryman, etc." That extends to soccer. "I think the general stereotype is [also] not very good, one of a reliable workhorse such as Park at Manchester United."

But Son has done more than challenge this stereotype, added Goldblatt. "That is what Son has just smashed, because he is, as the standard cliche goes, 'world-class.'"

Son may have smashed that on-field stereotype, but he is still often described off it using another. Headlines still talk of the modest, humble, clean-cut superstar who does what his supposedly strict father tells him to. "I've never once thought I am among the best players in the premier league," he said in November. "Honestly, I've never thought that for a moment. I have always tried to do my best for Tottenham, and in the national team, and try to show all my abilities."

Perhaps the next Asian star who comes along will be just as explosive on the field and a little more exciting off it, but for now Son has played his part. He has demonstrated that the sporting stereotypical image of the Asian athlete needs to change -- and made it easier for others to follow in his footsteps and do just that.

John Duerden has lived in Asia for over 20 years and contributes to The Guardian, Associated Press, BBC and The New York Times. He is the author of four books.

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