The rise of the Asian superjocks.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 27 2002 3:04 PM

The Rise of the Asian Superjocks

Baseball. Hoops. Golf. They're everywhere.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

"It is time to acknowledge and even celebrate the obvious," Jon Entine wrote two years ago in Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid To Talk About It. He was not, to be sure, talking about the obvious athletic superiority of Asians. In his book, the Asian race, like the Caucasian one, fell squarely in the shadow of the African athletic superman. Asians, Entine explained, had evolved to be slight and flexible, able to thrive only in sports like diving and ice skating.

Critics erupted when the book came out, as Entine had meant them to do. He was rehashing all the old racial typologies and stereotypes that responsible scientists have spent decades trying to stamp out. But one stereotype got a free pass: Everyone was so busy attacking Entine's views on black physical supremacy, there was no time to question his claims of Asian athletic irrelevance. The world's largest and most populous continent? Nothing there but a few acrobats, backed by a whole lot of farmers and chemists. Congenital wimps, all of them.

Yet while population geneticists and sociologists have been battling over the meaning of times in the 100-meter dash, Asians have been making their own argument about where they fit into the world of sports. And they've been doing it through pure, old-fashioned physical superiority. The fastest man in Major League Baseball is Asian. The most eagerly anticipated NBA rookie in years? Asian. The world's greatest golfer, the quickest pro hockey player, the most precocious relief ace? Asian, Asian, Asian.

Take Yao Ming. In the NBA, more than in any other sports league, biology can be destiny. The rim is 10 feet off the ground; the closer you are to the rim, the better. In part, this is why Shaquille O'Neal has three championship rings. And this is why, with the top pick in the NBA draft this summer, the Houston Rockets selected Yao, formerly of the Shanghai Sharks.

Yao stands 7-foot-5, which puts him among the tallest players in league history. But where earlier ultra-stretch players, such as Shawn Bradley and Manute Bol, have brought nothing but raw, gangly height to the game, Yao is agile and physically assured, with deadly hand-eye coordination. During the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis this past summer, facing defenses designed to thwart him, he shot a flabbergasting .753 from the floor. Nobody expects Yao, who just turned 22, to match that performance in the NBA right away. Still, he brings the promise or the threat of overwhelming physical superiority: the shooting touch of a small forward in a body that towers over O'Neal's. The league has never seen anything like it before.

Last year, in Major League Baseball, plenty of folks doubted that Japanese batting champion Ichiro Suzuki would flourish in the American game. All he did was win the American League batting title, the stolen-base crown, and the Most Valuable Player Award, while leading the Seattle Mariners to a record-tying 116 victories. Suzuki is a little wisp of a man, but as with the towering, sharp-shooting Yao, his game is based on natural physical domination. Pitchers tried to throw him their most unhittable stuff, but his eyes and hands were too quick to be fooled. An infielder would grab a grounder and wheel to throw, only to see Suzuki already flashing across first base. The ordinary rhythms of the game were too slow to account for him. He ran like a deer; he threw the ball, from deep right field, like a deer rifle.

Suzuki and Yao are just the start. The world's greatest golfer, hailed as the most dominant athlete in any sport, is Tiger Woods, who has more Asian ancestry than he does anything else. In women's golf, Korean Se Ri Pak is ranked No. 2.

Pick a sport: In soccer, South Korea stormed to the World Cup semifinals this year, knocking off the likes of Italy along the way. In hockey, Paul Tetsuhiko Kariya is consistently among the NHL scoring leaders and is widely regarded as the league's best pure skater. The most celebrated athlete in the Salt Lake Olympics was short-track speed-skater Apolo Ohno. The WBC and WBA boxing titleholders include Osamu Sato, Yodsanan Nanthachai, Masanori Tokuyama. Twenty-three of the last 35 Little League World Series champions have come from Taiwan, Japan, or Korea. Who led the Dallas Cowboys with 172 tackles last year? Linebacker Dat Nguyen, from Vietnam.

In distance running, Entine wrote in Taboo, Africans rule: "Even the slow Kenyans leave the rest of the pack behind. Each year, the top fifty fastest Kenyan marathoners can expect to break 2:13, a time out of reach of most whites and Asians." A year later, in the 2001 marathon, Lee Bong-ju of South Korea broke the tape in 2:09. It was the 11th victory for an Asian man in Boston; Africans, with another Kenyan win in 2002, have claimed 13. Not bad for a hopeless mismatch.

So how are Asians muscling their way to the top of so many different sports? Entine floated the hypothesis that Africa, as the cradle of human evolution, contains the greatest genetic diversity and hence produced more people with extraordinary innate physical gifts. The more opportunities Africans got to compete, the more they would win. "As the world playing field continues to level," Entine wrote, "natural abilities are more likely to come to the fore."

But there are lots of Asian people in this world, and their various abilities are coming to the fore, too. Asian immigrants are assimilating into American culture, their children pursuing jock dreams like Honus Wagner or Joe DiMaggio. And abroad, TV and international marketing have spread American sports across the Pacific—where some people have discovered that they're good at playing them. Asian baseball and basketball leagues, once separate and cheerfully presumed unequal, have learned that they can export talent to the United States. And U.S. teams have decided that it's worth paying for the talent.

That's one way of looking at it. Another way would be to wonder just how meaningful a concept like the "Asian race" is, if that concept's supposed to cover the abilities of Yao and Suzuki and Tiger Woods alike. Can a 300-pound giant like Yao really be said to share a biological destiny with a man half his size? Can North American athletes of mixed ancestry, such as Woods and Kariya, truly be lumped in with Asian nationals?

Well, that's what we tend to do with black athletes. Entine saw Allen Iverson and Wilt Chamberlain, with their totally different games and statures, as evidence of some unified black athleticism. So why aren't Yao and Suzuki viewed the same way? As for half-Asian stars like Woods, plenty of famous black athletes—Derek Jeter, Jason Kidd—have one white parent. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward is half black, if you're counting; his mother is Korean. We see racial dominance in sports where we look for it.

In basketball, Entine knew exactly what he was seeing—and what he would see in the future. He predicted "a near-washout of non-blacks in coming years, save for a few international mutant giants." I'm not sure what he meant by mutant, but as it turned out, not one of the giants on this year's World Championships all-tournament team was of African or even African-American descent. The guards were Yugoslavia's Peja Stojakovic and Argentina's Emanuel Ginobili. The forwards were Germany's Dirk Nowitzki and New Zealand's Pero Cameron. And in the middle, looming above the collection of the world's most outstanding basketball talent, stood Yao Ming.

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