Once every two years, a small, elite group of athletes become household names, rising to the forefront of national consciousness. During the Olympics, all eyes and — arguably, more importantly — all ears are on them, what they do and what they say; but sometimes, it’s their presence alone that speaks volumes. With athletes like Adam Rippon, Mirai Nagasu, Chloe Kim and Nathan Chen occupying that very public space in this particular moment in our nation’s history, it’s clear why that’s the case.
Ever since the rise of President Donald Trump, “politics” tends to be forbidden from major sporting and entertainment events. Participants in such events are instead expected to passively fall in line with a status quo of silence and oppression.
It’s rare that this long-established set-up is challenged on a large-scale. But the rhetoric and policies of the current administration strike every day at the core of our increasingly diverse American landscape. With the 2018 Winter Olympics underway and a Team USA defined by its unprecedented diversity, this set-up is turned over on its head automatically.
At the heart of the “Make America Great Again” agenda that drove Trump’s presidential campaign to its deeply unsettling victory, the “again” has always implied a regression of the social progress that’s empowered women, minorities and LGBTQ people, and a restoration of a time when America was exclusively “great” for straight, cis, white men.
In other words, the word “politics” and the demand to steer clear of said politics imply a false voluntariness, as if involving oneself in activism and social consciousness is a choice made as easily and conveniently as what to wear in the morning. But for essentially all except for non-white, cisgender, heterosexual men, simply to take up space and exist anywhere — let alone on the global stage, competing to represent an America rocked by renewed divisiveness — is a political act that comes with a staggering amount of pressure. For Olympians of marginalized groups, they are representing not only their country, but also an entire group that will sweepingly be associated with them — and they know it.
Individuals in any underrepresented group carry the weight of all expectations and perceptions of that group on their shoulders whenever they do anything, for better or for worse. The politicizing and generalizing that go hand-in-hand with members of minority groups add a degree of pressure, attention and expectation their non-minority counterparts aren’t subjected to.
And yet, many members of Team USA have more than risen to the occasion: Nagasu, a figure skater, became the first female American competitor to perform a triple axel, while Kim seized the gold medal in her snowboarding competition, proving herself to be a shining beacon of the sport’s future. And on top of his dazzling performance on the ice, Rippon drew attention prior to the opening ceremonies for his courageous rebuking of Vice President Mike Pence’s record of intolerance toward LGBTQ people when it was revealed the vice president would lead the U.S. delegation. While off the ice, he’s continued to dish one iconic quote after another and unabashedly be himself — a light-hearted yet unmistakably political act at a time of highly politicized social tensions regarding what it means to be an American.
We also shouldn’t ignore the quiet grace of 18-year-old Nathan Chen, who was portrayed as an inevitable gold medalist by the media and marketed as the face of American figure skating with the fortune of a nation seemingly placed on his young shoulders. Chen’s journey to the Olympics was a path paved with perfection and exceptionalism which have always been the direct results of his inspirational work ethic. This is often the case for people of color in their pursuit of the far too limited spaces allotted for them. In either case, it was this very perfection and exceptionalism, this sense of collective entitlement by our nation to reap the rewards of his hard work, that made his struggles and shortcomings that much more surprising and emotional.
Many have dismissed accusations that his mistakes were triggered by excessive media pressure because all athletes, no matter how old and no matter their backgrounds, face tremendous pressure. Perhaps there’s some truth to this; but either way, Chen added a human dimension to the Olympics by reminding us that athletes are imperfect individuals who respond to situations differently, that no one is impervious to the weight of expectations, that anyone can get back up and recover. Chen does so as a Chinese American, rising from his falls to tell underrepresented viewers that they, too, can rise.
Activism isn’t always picket signs and coordinated protests and marches. As Rippon has fought homophobia and bigotry with bold, fearless statements, Chen and his fellow Asian American athletes have fought nativism and racism with their chosen medium of quiet dignity. Rippon and Chen have both shown that American heroes come from all backgrounds — that regardless of any aspect of your identity, there is no limit to what you can achieve, nor any expectation of perfection. They may send these messages differently, but everyone has the right to tell their story in their own way. At the end of the day, that is the beauty and promise of American diversity.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.