Earlier this month, memorial stories started running which honored the passing of the purported first Asian American Olympic gold medalist. Sammy Lee of California was revered for his feats in diving.
Articles reflected on Lee’s admirable determination during the 1948 London games to challenge the discriminatory sports world as a Korean American. He won his first gold medal in Aug. 5, 1948, and a bronze at the same Olympics. He won another gold at the 1952 games in Helsinki.
Unfortunately, declarations of his groundbreaking feat for Asian Americans became a matter — once again — of a man getting credit for something a woman did.
The first Asian American Olympic gold medalist was a Filipina American woman. Her name was Victoria Manalo Draves. Manalo Draves (Draves was her married name) was the first woman diver to win two golds in the same Olympics, and she won her first gold medal in springboard diving on Aug. 3, 1948 — two days before Lee won his first gold medal in platform diving.
“Obviously it’s just wrong”, said Shannon Urabe, the visitor services assistant manager at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, located in Seattle. “We shouldn’t assume it’s men who achieve in sports first. It’s especially hard to find female Asian American heroes.”
Vicki Manalo Draves, who died in 2010, went through the same trials of racial segregation as Lee did, with the additional difficulty of facing bias against women. At one point, Manalo Draves was forced to use her British mother’s maiden name to gain access to swimming facilities that barred people of color.
The lack of celebration and recognition of women in the sports world is sadly commonplace. Many media outlets accepted that a man was first in an achievement and this misinformation spread.
We at the Seattle-based Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) took up the effort to ask major news outlets for a correction: the New York Times, NBC News and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times and NBC News quickly made updates and corrections to their articles, but not the Los Angeles Times — which missed its own 2010 story on Manalo Draves’ groundbreaking Olympic achievements.
“I was disappointed by the dismissive response I received from the [L.A. Times] whose technically narrow view of journalism did not seem to allow a more expansive and truthful historical context to his article,” FANHS member Ador Yano said.
(The L.A. Times was also called out recently for its lack of editorial tact in publishing letters that seemingly validated and condoned the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.)
The effect of the preconceived notion of who belongs in “Asian America” also can’t be ignored.
Psychologist E.J.R. David points out that while Filipinos and South Asians compose half of all Asian Americans today, articles on “Asian Americans” often only include people with East Asian ancestry — those with Chinese, Japanese and Korean ancestry.
Or, as he puts it bluntly: “The majority of Asian Americans today are BROWN, not yellow!”
No one is diminishing Sammy Lee’s achievements — being the first Asian American man to win an Olympic gold medal is notable. In real life, Lee and Manalo Draves were teammates who respected each other, good friends (Lee gave her away at her wedding), practiced the same sport, represented the same nation and succeeded in reaching gold together at the same Olympics.
“I think it’s interesting that the attempt at a diversity story in sports ended up marginalizing women while trying to highlight ethnicity,” said Emily Kutzler, who studies media research. ”The story of both of them would have meant just as much.”
That would have been a great story to tell.