US Olympic gymnast Sunisa Lee has said she was pepper-sprayed in a racist drive-by attack in Los Angeles. Image Credit: Supplied

Washington: Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee said unknown assailants yelled anti-Asian slurs and pepper-sprayed her in the latest high-profile case of hate-driven violence against Asian Americans.

Lee said she was waiting for an Uber in Los Angeles with friends, who were also of Asian descent, when a car pulled up to the group and its occupants screamed slurs and go back to where they came from, the gymnast said. Someone pepper-sprayed on Lee’s arm and the car sped off. Lee, 18, recalled feeling helpless, struggling to comprehend the recent surge of hate aimed at Asian Americans since the coronavirus pandemic.

'Let it happen'

“I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off,” she said. “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.”

Lee is in Los Angeles for the filming of the new season of Dancing With The Stars.

Lee, who grew up in a Hmong immigrant community in St. Paul, said she feared the repercussions of her reaction to the violence, such as reporting the incident to police.

Concerns about reporting hate offenses are not uncommon. Slightly more than half of hate crime victims reported the attacks to police, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“When you have someone who is as prominent and beloved as an Olympic medalist feeling hesitancy with reporting, can you imagine what someone who does not have her prominence may feel?” said Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University.

Lee’s star has risen since the Tokyo Games where she clinched the all-around gold medal, the fifth consecutive American woman to win the coveted title.

Verbal abuse

The news of her attack comes after U.S. karate Olympian Sakura Kokumai said on Instagram that she faced verbal abuse in April. A man approached Koumaki, who is Japanese American, while she was on the phone at a Southern California park and yelled at her. No one came to her aid.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of Asian Americans have reported being harassed or assaulted - the hate disproportionately directed at women. As of June, advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate has tallied more than 9,000 self-reported hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since March 2020 - with more than 63% of those reports made by women.