The U.S. Olympic Team Tells the Story of Immigration, Offers a Vision of Unity

The stunning diversity of the U.S. team competing at the Summer Olympics in London shows us what is possible in our increasingly multicultural and pluralistic nation. Fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad, an African American Muslim, attests to this potential as she becomes the first American woman to compete in the Olympics with a hijab.

Athletes of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, creeds, and economic circumstance root for each other’s success which ultimately brings shared glory. The image they present is what our future can look like.

The strong presence of immigrants and children of immigrants among our athletes and coaches retells the enduring tale of the American Dream.

Lopez Lomong is one of the “lost boys” of Sudan who found refuge and family in the United States. He carried the American flag at the opening ceremonies in Beijing and is now in London competing in the 5,000 meter run. Marlen Esparza is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first woman to qualify in the first year that female boxing has been accepted as an Olympic sport. Tony Gunawan, an Indonesian American, and Howard Bach, a Vietnamese American, are partners in the U.S. badminton team.

The triumph of Danell Leyva, Kyla Ross, Nathan Adrian, and others reflect how integral and crucial immigrants and their children are to our country’s dynamism and success.

Gymnast Danell Leyva, bronze medalist in the Men’s All Around, was born in Cuba and spirited to Florida by his mother when he was only a year old. Yin Alvarez, Leyva’s stepfather and coach, crossed the Rio Grande to defect while his Cuban team was performing in Mexico City.

Gabrielle Douglas won individual gold with her coach Liang Chow by her side. Chow was a member of the Chinese National team who immigrated to the United States and eventually steered Shawn Johnson and Douglas to their Olympic glory.

Swimmer Nathan Adrian, gold medalist in the 100-meter freestyle, is proud to be half-Chinese, tweeting “@paulchi_vaan: @Nathangadrian hi nathan i it true that you’re half Asian? absolutely! Half Chinese #hapapride.” Gymnast Kyla Ross, member of our gold-winning women’s team, is of African America, Filipino, Japanese and Puerto Rican descent.

As we enjoy the games, look closely and be energized by the vision of what is possible. The success of Team U.S.A. lies not only on the medal count but on its strength and power in diversity and unity. The promise of our future also lies in our embrace and celebration of difference.

Correction:  We originally reported that  Ibtihaj Muhammad is an African Muslim immigrant.  She is an African American Muslim.

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Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.