From China to South Korea to the US, Asian women in sports have become increasingly more visible, scoring Olympic medals and dominating international tournaments.  They not only serve as celebrities and role models, but also, like many athletic superstars, often double as a sort of diplomat, bridging international gaps through competitions in global arenas. 

But in recent years, many Asian women athletes have used their platforms to shine a light on the injustices they face behind the scenes in their personal and professional lives, such as racism, harassment, and sexual assault.  What happens when a nation fails to protect its own icons, and how did we get to the point where these women have to use their status to seek justice?

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai took to social media on Nov. 2 to publicly accuse former Vice Premier of China Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. The post was quickly scrubbed from the internet. Those who posted about the matter were silenced and censored. And then, just as her words online, Peng seemed to vanish overnight. 

As days turned into weeks, with no appearances from the tennis champion, public concerns mounted and turned into international demands. “Where is Peng Shuai?” became a rallying cry heard around the world. The question ignited headlines, trended online in the form of a hashtag, and sent the tennis world reeling. 

Following the outcries of concerned fans, athletic associations, and international figures — including the Biden administration’s call for “independent, verifiable proof” of her safety — Chinese officials released statements claiming the well-being of Peng and accusing foreign outlets and government leaders of politicizing the matter. Despite the efforts of Chinese state media to assuage the public by publishing videos of Peng showing her happy and well, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced on Dec. 1 that it would suspend all tournaments in China.

“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” said Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, in a statement.  

The WTA, which holds a 10-year deal with China and stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars by suspending tournaments in the country, has been applauded for its decision to speak out and take action where many athletic organizations have chosen to remain silent. Many Olympic greats are standing by the move. 

“We cannot walk away from issues related to sexual assault,” Simon said in an interview with the New York Times. “If we do that, we are telling the world that is OK and it’s not important. That is what this is about.”

Although the #MeToo movement has inspired many people around the world to open up about their own experiences with sexual assault, we have not yet reached a culture of easily attainable justice. So people get left behind — particularly women of color. 

Even when a form of justice is served, such as in the case of a South Korean Olympic short-track speedskating coach receiving a 10-year prison sentence (increased from his original sentence of 18 months) earlier this year for raping two-time gold medalist Shim Suk-Hee, there are ways these systems fail.

Experts argue that the lack of government acknowledgement of widespread abuse and halfhearted measures like whistleblower hotlines suggest that Shim’s high-profile status is the reason someone was able to be held accountable. Shim, a well-known champion in speedskating, a sport in which South Korea holds the most Olympic medals of any country, endured physical and verbal abuse by her coach Cho Jae-beom for years before coming forward in 2019. Three other athletes also launched accusations against Cho, and the case became a point of national reckoning

“This unveils the humiliating underside of our country’s glorious facade as a sports powerhouse,” said President Moon Jae-in in response to the allegations.

But what happens when a survivor comes forward and their case gets swept under the rug? South Korean triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon died by suicide in 2020 following her report of abuse by her coach and two athletes to law enforcement and sports officials. Her claims were backed up by two former teammates who spoke anonymously at a press conference following Choi’s death. 

“The deep-rooted problems of abuse in South Korea’s sporting world killed Choi,” said Huh Jung-hoon, professor of sports sciences at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, to the Washington Post. “In the shadows of the country’s towering achievements in sports lies the harsh training regimen that justifies violence as long as it produces medal-winners.”

South Korea’s Human Rights Commission found that, in a survey of over 1,000 professional athletes, 25% had been physically abused and 10% had experienced sexual abuse.

A study conducted by Frontiers in Sports and Active Living using data from athletes participating in the World Athletics under 20 World Championships found that Asian athletes were more likely than expected to have experienced sexual abuse. The study surveyed 480 athletes from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Oceania, and Asia and showed that 20% of Asian athletes, counting women and men, had experience sexual abuse. Athletes from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Oceania reported rates of 9%, 7%, 7%, 14%, and 5% respectively.

Cultural Patterns Need to Shift

While Asian cultures are not monolithic, there are patterns at play here that highlight deep flaws in training practices, reporting, and pressures of the limelight.

Asian cultures are often notorious for high-pressure environments, pushing for success and in some cases using “tough love” that actually amounts to physical and mental abuse. Human Rights Watch reported that since 1983, at least 121 children in Japan have died during judo training in schools. According to ABC News, a number of Japanese teenage athletes have died by suicide due to the culture of taibatsu, a practice of corporal punishment. 

In South Korea, the expectations of excellence, fear of industry backlash, and normalization of toxic training conditions could be factors in the reluctance to report such injustices, according to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. 

When Lui Lai-yiu, an Asian Indoor Games gold medalist hurdler from Hong Kong, spoke up 10 years after her former coach had assaulted her at age 13, she urged victims to speak out and stated that: "In Chinese culture, sexual issues have always been considered embarrassing and never openly discussed."

And in a case such as Peng’s in China, the alleged censorship and other worrisome circumstances that followed her public accusation could demonstrate why she may have felt the need to bring it to public attention in the first place. 

This all goes beyond sexual assault and physical abuse, too. Since Naomi Osaka’s rise to fame, the four-time Grand Slam champion has endured online abuse from users in both Japan and the US. In May, Osaka announced her withdrawal from the French Open, citing mental health issues she had dealt with since 2018, including anxiety she has felt when facing the “world’s media.” Osaka, who was born in Japan and raised and trained in the US, has also spoken about the racist backlash she faced after choosing to represent Japan instead of the US at the 2021 Olympics. 

A Global Culture of Turning a Blind Eye

So why is the world failing to prevent these injustices from happening? If these women are considered heroes and respectable icons in their field, how can we turn a blind eye for so long? 

The rampant abuse of young athletes is a problem worldwide because governments, institutions, coaches, athletic boards, schools and universities, and law enforcement choose to protect abusers and their successes over survivors who deliver results. US Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, for example, was able to carry out his crimes for years before being convicted in 2017. By then he had assaulted, abused, and molested over 150 young women and girls

It shouldn’t take scathing exposés of years-long abuses or high-profile athletes bravely coming forward for justice to be served. If the accusers had not been athletes of such high international recognition, would they have been able to receive the same amount of support or attention? 

In the case of Peng in China, the International Olympic Committee — which claimed to have confirmed her safety — is going ahead with the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. On Dec. 6, the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the games, withholding sending official government representation, although athletes will still be sent to compete. The question now is whether governments and sports associations care more about facades, money, and medals over protecting Asian women athletes and making sure a situation like Peng’s never happens again.

For many Asian women and Asian Americans, to find representation watching women and girls like Suni Lee, Hidilyn Diaz, Momiji Nishiya, and Lee Kiefer display acts of pure excellence at this year’s Tokyo Olympics was a moment of extreme pride. What kind of culture are we fostering by ignoring the role models and competitors striving to get there? 

The world is at a crossroads. How we move forward in terms of addressing discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault of Asian women in sports — how we choose to act now — sets a precedent of what we’re willing to tolerate when the next Osaka, Shim, or Peng speaks up.


Demand Equity

We Need to Protect Asian Women in Sports

By Kate Nakamura