Breaking Olympic Barriers

Figure skater Michelle Kwan, F11, advocates for overcoming bias at the Winter Games and beyond
February 15, 2018

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The daughter of working-class immigrant parents, figure skater Michelle Kwan, F11, often performed in homemade costumes because money was tight. Yet her skill and determination led her to become the most award-winning U.S. figure skater ever: a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion, and nine-time U.S. champion.

Now, twenty years after earning her first Olympic medal, she’s at the Winter Games in South Korea talking about breaking down barriers, whether it’s the prejudices that make it difficult for some people to participate fully in sports or the distrust that feeds misunderstandings between nations.

The message resonates in a year when North and South Korean athletes marched together during the opening ceremonies and the U.S. for the first time sent two openly gay athletes to the Winter Games. It also connects with Kwan’s years at the Fletcher School, where she studied East Asia and learned about North Korea negotiations from then-dean Stephen W. Bosworth, who sought to defuse nuclear tensions as a U.S. special envoy to the reclusive nation.

Kwan, who is thirty-seven, has worked with the U.S. State Department as a public diplomacy envoy, was a senior advisor at the Bureau of Educational Affairs, and now serves on the board of the Special Olympics. She took a break between cheering on competitors in Pyeongchang and moderating a panel about female athletes overcoming biases to talk with Tufts Now about gender equality, sports diplomacy, and lacing up her skates after a nearly eight-year hiatus.

Tufts Now: What’s it like to be back at the Olympics, two decades after winning your first Olympic medal in Nagano?

Michelle Kwan: It’s a lot of fun. Now that I’m so far removed from skating, it’s nice to be able to sit back and enjoy the competition. I love the sports at the Olympics and of course cheering on the American figure skaters, who I know well. I’m so proud of the people I’m friends with who come out and nail it.

What’s your message about overcoming bias in sports? Did you encounter discrimination in your career?

I was very fortunate, because I didn’t come across many gender inequalities in the sport of figure skating. Women athletes in my generation have benefited from pioneers who paved the way, pioneers like Billie Jean King, who has become a dear friend of mine and is a mentor to so many athletes. It’s because of people like Billie Jean that we have such great opportunities. Through my work at the State Department and with the Special Olympics with people with intellectual disabilities, I have tried to make sure that we have more access for people of all types of backgrounds, no matter what we look like, who we are, where we come from, and who we love.

North Korea sent a delegation of performers, athletes, and top officials to the games, and North and South Korean athletes marched together in the opening ceremonies. How should such sports diplomacy affect international relations with North Korea?

I was at the unified Korea hockey game against Switzerland. It was a historical event. I saw the pairs North Korean skaters. It was nice to see these athletes participate. They’ve trained really hard. When you look at the Olympic truce, it’s about bringing countries together during a time of peace and friendly competition. I think it is diplomacy at its best, where we all—despite where we come from, the color of our skin, our beliefs—we are here competing at the Olympic Games.

I know it is politicized and people have said North Korea’s participation is propaganda, but when you look at the actual athletes on the ice competing, they’re there trying to be the best athletes they can be—and that’s it. We cheer them on as athletes. It might be one step to increase dialogue and build more understanding between countries.

I heard you took a long break from the ice, but in December you posted some wonderful clips on Instagram of yourself skating. Are you skating these days?

I have been. Of course, being at the Olympic Games, I am super-duper excited and I’ve been getting back on the ice more. I did a triple toe, which was a challenge. My big sister said, “I wonder if you can do a triple in the next couple months” and I said, “Challenge accepted!” The last time I jumped and performed was eight years ago, in 2010, when I went to L.A. and did a show and then came back for the second year of my M.A.L.D. degree at Fletcher.

You’ve served as a public diplomacy ambassador for the United States, and as an outreach coordinator for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. What’s next?

I have been on the board of Special Olympics for about ten years. I have been working in preparation for the 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi, UAE. It’s a region we haven’t been in for the World Games before. I’m hoping to be able to use these World Games to increase understanding and get more people involved in Special Olympics.

Will you run for office yourself?

Potentially. I never say never.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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