Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee says she was pepper-sprayed in racist attack

US Olympic gymnast Sunisa Lee has revealed that she was pepper-sprayed in a racist drive-by attack weeks after she won gold in the Tokyo games.

Lee, 18, was waiting for an Uber in Los Angeles after a night out with a group of friends, who are all of Asian descent. A car sped by and its passengers began yelling anti-Asian slurs and told Lee and her friends to “go back to where they came from”. One passenger sprayed Lee’s arm with pepper spray as the car sped off, said Lee, who became the first Hmong American Olympian and the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics competition this year.

“I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off,” Lee revealed in a recent interview with PopSugar. “I didn’t do anything to them, and having the reputation, it’s so hard because I didn’t want to do anything that could get me into trouble. I just let it happen,” she added.

The attack happened in October while Lee was in Los Angeles to film Dancing with the Stars.

Lee grew up in a tight-knit Hmong community in St Paul, Minnesota. Her parents emigrated from Laos before she was born and settled in the city, which is home to the largest Hmong community in the US.

The Hmong people are a displaced ethnic group from south-east Asia that sided with the US during the Vietnam War. After the war, Hmong who remained in Laos were persecuted, conscripted into forced labor and taken to concentration camps. As a result many, including Lee’s family, fled the country.

Since the coronavirus was first reported in China, members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the US have faced bigotry and racism in the form of verbal harassment and physical attacks. Many blame Donald Trump for helping to stir anti-Asian sentiment by using racist terms when referring to the coronavirus, such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu”.

More than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents have been reported since last March. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that tracks and responds to racially motivated crimes towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 4,548 hate crimes occurred in 2020 and another 4,522 occurred in 2021.