Sport

Olympic champion gymnast Suni Lee and the Hmong Community

Suni Lee won gold in the women’s individual all-round gymnastics final on July 29, 2021, thus helping U.S.A. retain the title despite the last moment withdrawal of defending champion Simone Biles.   | Photo Credit: AP

Suni Lee won gold in the women’s individual all-round gymnastics final on July 29, 2021, thus helping U.S.A. retain the title despite the last moment withdrawal of defending champion Simone Biles.

As Lee headed to the final rotation of the event, she had a thin lead over her Brazilian opponent Rebecca Andrade. On scoring a whooping 15.300 on the uneven bars, the Brazilian scored higher than Lee in in the qualification round and needed a 13.802 to win gold. Finally, Andrade managed a 13.666 whereas Lee’s final total was just .135 greater than Andrade’s 57.298.

Eighteen-year-old Suni Lee is a six-time member of the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team and is the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast. She was also part of the Olympic team that won gold in the 2019 World Championship.

Born and raised in St.Paul, Minnesota, Suni’s parents fled from Laos during the Vietnam War. Lee started gymnastics at the age of six.

The years that led up to the Tokyo Olympics were fraught with tragedies and accidents for Suni. Her father was paralysed in an accident in 2019. Later, she lost her aunt and uncle to COVID-19.

After Biles withdrew from the gymnastic event at Tokyo, all eyes were on Suni. Despite the pressure, the teenager emerged triumphant and jubilant.

What spotlights Lee’s triumph in the Olympic meet is the history of the ethnic minority group that the athlete belongs to.

History of the Hmong Community

The History of the Hmong community is rooted in oppression, systematic negation of cultural and political identities, and a sensibility shaped by the abrasions of war; the refugee immigrant community currently makes for 1% of USA’s population. Since 2007, the Hmong Community has been a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation.

According to an exhaustive timeline of the Hmong community published by the Minnesota Historical Society, the Hmongs lived autonomously in the remote regions of China. Due to successive violent uprisings, they fled to mountainous regions which are today known as Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Laos became a colony of France in 1893, and was then known as French Indochina. A 1960 coup d’état in the Lao capital, Vientiane, deepened the country’s political disquiet. Newly elected U.S. President, John F. Kennedy authorised the recruitment of ethnic minorities in Laos to participate in covert military operations to combat the spread of communism. Hmong troops fought with the American military in what is today known as the ‘Secret War’. Out of the 300,000 Hmong people who peopled Laos, 19,000 were inducted into the secret operation sponsored by CIA known as Special Guerrilla Units (SGU). Hmong girls were trained as nurses and medics to care for wounded soldiers.

Clint Eastwood, in his 2008 film, “Gran Torino”, depicted this highly under-represented community of Asia. The film revolved around a racist old man named Walt who developed an unlikely bond with his neighbour Thao, who belonged to the Hmong community. Gradually, the blossoming of this unlikely friendship cleansed Walt of his prejudice. The movie introduced this unique community to the citizens of the world. Suni Lee’s gold medal in gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics has again put a spotlight on the community.


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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 1:13:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/olympic-champion-gymnast-suni-lee-and-the-hmong-community/article35647566.ece

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