Tokyo 2020: On Nationalities, Newborns & Naomi

Naomi Osaka

In a time of global isolation and uncertainty, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics provided a beacon of hope and unity for the world. It was a chance to be united across screens and oceans, to cheer on our nations with as much excitement as for the underdog whose flag we barely recognise. That’s the beauty of the Olympics - to be united because of, not despite, our differences.

Not to be conflated with nationalism, the patriotism inspired by the Olympics surprises many. Individuals who typically show minimal interest in sports, or who naturally feel little affinity for home or country (such as myself), simply cannot resist this display of international harmony.

It's often said that for those who move away from their home countries, the distance actually galvanises national pride that would otherwise lay dormant. Here in the pubs of Prague, I find myself exaggerating slang and vowels I wouldn't normally use so conspicuously in Sydney.

The nature of nationality is nebulous. I was born in Australia to immigrant parents, yet was exposed to enough of my Malaysian heritage to nurture pride in being Asian. Now in my adopted Czech home, I have also learned to cheer on as Jiří Prskavec rows for gold, or get excited for the scheduled USA-Czech basketball game with as much excitement as watching Aussies rip it up in the pool.

As I surf the streams of the Olympics with my newborn daughter in my arms, I wonder of the future that is in store for her.

Jiří Prskavec | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

Will she be accepted for the person she is? Will she prefer snowboarding at Spindleruv Mlyn, or surfing the waves in mine and gold medalist Emma McKeon’s hometown of Wollongong? Or maybe she’ll be smitten by Malaysia’s national sport, badminton? Will her dual Czech-Australian citizenship advantage her in any way? Or will it lead to identity crises down the line? Her inheritance of this myriad of backgrounds will no doubt lead to interesting conversations wherever she goes.

The world is a complicated place, and the positive atmosphere of the Olympics is sometimes derailed by the twin faces of racism and nationalism. As I ponder on the nature of my daughter’s mixed heritage, I also see warning signs in the story of tennis champion Naomi Osaka's Olympic journey.

Although Osaka has lived in the US since the age of three, her heart remains with Japan. Ranked as women’s tennis world number one, she was chosen to light the torch at the opening ceremony. However, she lost in the third round in a shock upset match with Czech player Marketa Vondroušová (admittedly, although Osaka is a personal favourite, seeing a Czech player depose the world number one did allow me a small seed of surrogate national pride).

Soon, social media was flooded with vitriol. “She doesn’t even speak Japanese”, “She should have stayed in America”, “What a waste of talent, she didn’t deserve to light the torch”.

Being of mixed Japanese-Haitian descent, Osaka’s narrative of nationality and race echo all the insecurities and questions that migrant children such as myself learn to internalise from a very young age. Will we ever be good enough to be accepted in our new homelands? As Osaka stated in her eponymous Netflix documentary series, “Sometimes people forget the difference between nationality and race”.

Or as one of my favourite Tik Tok personalities joked about being half Japanese, half Australian, “The best thing about being mixed race is that in your home country, you don’t fit in. And in your other home country, you don’t fit in”.

Events like the Olympics are crucial to continue fostering our global community. Especially these days, when we are paradoxically in the most connected and most isolated times history has seen.

Markéta Vondroušová | Photo: Seth Wenig,  ČTK/AP

Nationalities, race, countries, continents, languages….these are differences  that can be celebrated as in friendly competitive sport. They shouldn’t be sources of division and animosity. Championing every individual no matter what their background for the nature of their accomplishments is all we need to do.

The Olympics Committee announced the 2032 games to be hosted in Brisbane, Australia. Calculating ahead, my newborn daughter will be 11 years old. “What sport could we enrol her in?” I half-jokingly ask my wife.

We look for Olympian role models we connect with. Gymnastics like Hmong American Sunisa Lee? Swimming like the Australian champion Emma McKeon? Maybe tennis, like Marketa Vondroušová? Given the medalists in skateboarding averaging around 13 years old, that seems like a sound option…although injury rates would be high.

But the real question I am very excited to address...which country would my daughter choose to represent? To which nationality will she feel most aligned with? Or perhaps neither? Maybe she’ll bring my family history full circle and move back to Asia? The possibilities are literally endless!

All that matters is that we can embrace everything that makes us different as much as we welcome the easy things we have common ground on. History has separated us enough for the time being, so let’s look for ways to be united.

Author: Kevin Loo
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