Sports

Kristi Yamaguchi Is Remembered as the Perfect Olympics Hero. It Wasn’t Always That Way.

The figure skater won a gold medal, but to many, she still had to prove she was American.

Yamaguchi skates on one leg with her arms spread wide, wearing a blue dress.
Kristi Yamaguchi at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. Bruno Bachelet/Paris Match via Getty Images

At the height of Kristi Yamaguchi’s fame, comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong remembers practicing the Olympic figure skater’s jumps off her grandparents’ living room couch. Writer Nicole Chung saved the March 1992 Sports Illustrated cover, featuring Yamaguchi holding up her gold medal, in a plastic sleeve and hung a Kristi Yamaguchi Hallmark Christmas ornament on her tree.

There were lots of children like Wong and Chung all over the U.S. In the 1990s, so much fan mail poured in from across the country that Yamaguchi’s local Japanese American Buddhist temple helped her open it and respond. Kids sent her drawings and had Kristi Yamaguchi–themed birthday parties. Some parents even named their babies after her.

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Just mentioning her name to my Asian American peers evokes nostalgia and joy. “She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen,” my good friend Michelle Mush Lee told me. “I remember being like, Oh my God, I want to be her.” I felt the same way. I remember watching, alongside my baachan (my grandma) and my mom, Yamaguchi skate, and feeling a sense of awe and anticipation each time she stepped onto the ice.

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One explanation for such intense fandom is that Yamaguchi accomplished something monumental. When she won the gold medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, she became the first Asian American figure skater to do so. (Nathan Chen’s 2022 gold made him only the second.) Yet, for many, the infatuation had little to do with our passion for the sport or for the Olympics. Until this past year, when I worked on a figure skating podcast, I could not tell you the difference between a triple loop and a triple Salchow.

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For more of us, it was Yamaguchi’s breakthrough into pop culture that skyrocketed her from athlete to icon. For me (a fourth-generation Japanese American woman) and for countless Gen X and millennial Asian Americans, Kristi Yamaguchi was one of the first and one of the few Asian Americans we saw on TV. We were starving for the image of Asian American excellence she projected. She rose to mainstream American celebrity—and that was new.

Today, an unprecedented (if still inadequate) amount of Asian American representation is unfolding on screen. At the same time, there’s a new wave of anti-Asian racism and assaults across the U.S.—not unlike the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those parallels to Yamaguchi’s heyday help explain why she meant so much to Asian Americans back then, and why she still does, 30 years later.

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Asian American celebrity has always been rare and fraught. Hollywood’s most famous early portrayals leaned heavily on deceitful stereotypes, like Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon or the heavily-coded-as-Asian Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. Well into the ’80s and ’90s, I could count the number of famous Asian American women I knew on one hand. Even then, the Hollywood roles available for Asians were often reduced to stereotypical characters who were heavily accented, like foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, or hypersexualized like the sex worker in Full Metal Jacket. I was a 10-year-old kid in 1992, and I spent most of my childhood obsessively watching and rewatching movies about white Disney princesses. The idea of a MoanaMulan, or Raya and the Last Dragon was inconceivable to me.

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“You did not see yourself as somebody who could be the star of your own narrative,” my friend Brianna Lee said.*

But then, Yamaguchi stood atop the podium of the Winter Olympics’ marquee event with a gold medal around her neck, singing the national anthem. In the ensuing months and years, she was everywhere—in commercials, on cereal boxes, in Got Milk? ads, and in magazines. Her ubiquity sent a message to all kinds of people—but particularly to us, as Asian Americans.

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Yamaguchi herself was surprised by the response. Her Olympic dream was at its core an athletic one; it was very personal.

“It was eye-opening,” the gold medalist told me in an interview for the podcast Blind Landing about her impact on Asian American communities. “I started to really feel that, being Asian American, having accomplished what I did was something significant.”

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“There’s a way in which sports becomes a window to challenge the fact that Asian Americans are not the ‘perpetual foreigner’—we’re American, too,” said Constancio Arnaldo, assistant professor at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas and a co-editor of Asian American Sporting Cultures. Before Yamaguchi’s emergence, one notable active Asian American athlete in the U.S. was tennis player Michael Chang. In 1989, Chang became the youngest man to ever win a major tournament, when at only 17 years old, he shocked the tennis world by beating top-ranked Ivan Lendl and then–world No. 3 Stefan Edberg for the French Open title. Chang spent the ’90s battling white rivals Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in the final rounds of Grand Slams, and would rise to the No. 2 men’s ranking in the world—but he never won another major title, and he never became a major celebrity. In figure skating, Yamaguchi’s most important forerunner was Tiffany Chin. At the 1984 Olympics, Chin finished fourth, and in 1985, she became the first Asian American U.S. national champion. Chin’s career left a lasting impact on the skating world—but she likewise never achieved mainstream fame.

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Chang and Chin’s precedents, though meaningful, did not mean that wide acceptance of Yamaguchi came immediately after she won her gold medal. Both before and after the Olympics, there was uncertainty over whether Yamaguchi would actually be able to score any large endorsement deals at all. In the month right after her win, a flurry of stories speculated about the possibilities. One headline proclaimed, “To Marketers, Kristi Yamaguchi Isn’t As Good As Gold.”

Yamaguchi skates on one leg with her arms and other leg parallel to the ground. She's wearing a black dress.
Yamaguchi at the 1992 Olympics. David Madison/Getty Images
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Another of Albertville’s American gold medalists was speed skater Bonnie Blair. At the time, Blair, who is white, had already locked down a number of endorsements, including for Evian water and McDonald’s. The timing was key; usually if Olympic athletes don’t secure endorsements within a month of the Games, it’s hard to secure them at all.

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One marketing executive said in a 1992 Washington Post piece: “The environment to ‘max out’ on [Yamaguchi’s] earning potential is not enhanced by the present mood of the country toward Japan.”

The events of the era eerily parallel today’s anti-Asian climate, in which Stop AAPI Hate has collected reports of more than 10,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those attacks echo the long history of anti-Asian racism and discriminatory laws that have targeted Asian American communities, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

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“I think that as long as we are seen … as threats and are scapegoated, this will continue to happen as it’s happening now,” says Cynthia Choi of Chinese for Affirmative Action, one of the co-founders of the Stop AAPI Hate campaign.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, anti-Japan bias was cresting. Political turmoil in Iran led to a spike in gas prices, and people started to buy more energy-efficient Japanese manufactured cars. Simultaneously, demand for U.S.-manufactured cars plummeted. In just one year, Ford laid off nearly half of its hourly employees, cutting about 100,000 jobs.

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In reaction, people pointed fingers at Japan. Across the country, auto workers took sledge hammers and baseball bats to Japanese cars. Government officials called for boycotts of Japanese manufacturers.

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For Asian Americans, the national rhetoric translated into incidents of anti-Asian speech and violence. The most infamous of these happened in 1982, when two white auto workers in Detroit beat Vincent Chin to death with a baseball bat. Witnesses at the bar overheard one of them, Ronald Ebens, say, “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” Neither assailant spent a day in prison, receiving just $3,000 in fines combined.

By the 1992 Olympics, this sentiment was continuing to grow. A series of real estate deals, including Mitsubishi purchasing Rockefeller Center, raised concerns about a “corporate Japanese takeover.” When the head of Nintendo purchased the Seattle Mariners as a charitable gesture to keep the struggling baseball team afloat, the deal faced national opposition, even from Major League Baseball’s commissioner.

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This was the sociopolitical context that Yamaguchi entered after her gold medal win. She was only 20 years old and had to field questions from reporters—at the time, mostly white men—about the endorsement controversy in a way that also subtly commented on the state of the country and the world economy. Each media interview felt like a test: Was Yamaguchi American enough?

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One 1992 Entertainment Tonight segment laid out the possibility that Yamaguchi’s Japanese American heritage was hurting her endorsement possibilities “because of anti-Japanese sentiment in America.” Yamaguchi deflected the claim with her characteristic smile.

“I don’t think it should have anything to do with it,” the young Yamaguchi said in the segment. “I’m fourth generation American, and I went over to Albertville representing the United States, and I came back to the United States with the gold medal for them.”

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Today, Yamaguchi remembers this convergence of events around her win. “I was just like, Why this timing? Like, why is this happening now?” she told me. “I didn’t compete for endorsements, so, whatever comes my way I’m grateful for. But when you hear it’s because of how I look, or what my last name is, that was frustrating. … I couldn’t feel any more American than I was.”

She said that in navigating such rocky territory, rather than focus on the controversy, she tried to channel her energy into things she could control.

“I think I knew what I still wanted to accomplish in skating, with a professional career, so I consciously chose to really put all my energy into that,” she said. “Versus waiting for something that is so fleeting, as far as endorsements.”

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Many Olympians often see their fame peak during the Olympic season and then fade away over the years. But Yamaguchi was not like other Olympians; her charisma (and, likely, her ability to gracefully field these interviews) brought her mainstream success. Though she didn’t get a flood of endorsements right after the Games, they came later—over the next few years, and throughout the following decades. She showed up in commercials, like those for Mervyn’s and Entenmann’s doughnuts. She appeared on talk shows and graced the cover of People magazine.

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Rather than compete at the 1994 Olympics, she decided to go into professional skating. She toured the country with Stars on Ice and after she joined, the number of cities on the tour doubled. Yamaguchi then appeared as herself in film and television cameos, including in D2: The Mighty Ducks and Everybody Loves Raymond. In 2006, she became a commentator for NBC’s Olympics coverage, would win Dancing With the Stars in 2008, and in 2018, appeared in the most successful Asian American sitcom to date, Fresh Off the Boat.

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Simply put, she didn’t go away, and her celebrity continued to bring greater visibility to Asian American history and social issues. In his 1992 address to the Democratic National Convention, Jesse Jackson invoked Yamaguchi’s story to talk about the Japanese internment camps. Henry Louis Gates Jr. used his 2010 interview with Yamaguchi to explore the history of Japanese Americans in the U.S. in his PBS television show Faces of America, which unveiled the family trees of celebrities and led to Gates’ popular Finding Your Roots series.

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In recent years, Asian American sports stars have become national heroes. After Yamaguchi came Michelle Kwan, who won silver at the 1998 Games, bronze in 2002, and also became a household name. Kwan in turn inspired a generation of dominant Asian American skaters, including 2022 gold medalist Chen. There’s been an Asian American medalist at the U.S. nationals every year since Kristi’s 1992 Olympic performance. More recently, non–figure skaters like the NBA’s Jeremy Lin, Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, and dual national tennis star Naomi Osaka have become sports heroes in the U.S., too.

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For Asian Americans who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, it goes without saying: We know that Yamaguchi broke the mold for mainstream representation. We also know that today, the community is far from achieving nationwide acceptance. Amid yet another era of anti-Asian xenophobia and attacks, that often feels even further away than it did in 1992. But Yamaguchi showed that even in an anti-Asian climate, it was possible for a member of our communities to become a symbol of Americanness.

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Yamaguchi’s fame brought with it a heavy burden of being the “perfect” celebrity. Perhaps she channeled pioneers like Jackie Robinson, who faced the exceptional challenge of desegregating his sport and enduring physical and emotional threats—often having to “turn the other cheek.” (Though Robinson did not always bite his tongue.) Yamaguchi benefited from the path that Robinson and others paved, but competing at the highest level in a predominately white sport still required her to stay conscious that any “wrong” move could reflect poorly on an entire community. She was poised and cool and beautiful in the face of hate; she checked the boxes required of an all-American champion. But she likely had to be all those things to go where no one who looked like her had gone before, so that other, more complicated, less “perfect” Asian American celebrities could follow.

Kristi Yamaguchi and I are both mothers of two. Neither of my kids are yet in grade school, and they’re growing up in a world where the people they see in the media who reflect their heritage don’t fit on one hand, or into one box. Yamaguchi’s two teenage daughters are becoming adults in a nation where hatred still exists, but where they can assert their American identity, poke holes in it, and demand more.

Correction, July 15, 2022: This piece originally misattributed a Brianna Lee quote to Michelle Mush Lee.

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