Amazin LeThi has a unique story in several different ways, but her latest challenge sees her enter a sporting world that even she never imagined she would be a part of.
Born in Vietnam but growing up in Australia, the champion bodybuilder has always been used to being different. Being a young girl who enjoyed sport already made her stand out at school, but not many others will have started lifting weights as a six-year-old and been inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger to pursue a career in bodybuilding.
As one of a very few Asian LGBT+ athletes, since stepping away from competition LeThi has turned to advocacy work as a Stonewall sports champion and Athlete Ally ambassador, among many other things. She has met with world leaders, and was even invited to the White House to meet then vice-president Joe Biden as part of a reception on LGBT+ rights.
Most recently though, LeThi was announced as one of three judges for Formula E’s open talent call which is giving 18-24-year-olds the chance to earn a contract to become part of their presenting team for season seven, beginning at the start of next year.
The first round of judging in the competition took place last week, with LeThi diving headfirst into the new challenge to ensure that there is diversity both on and off-screen.
“I never thought that I would enter into motor racing,” she admitted.
“For a lot of people, it’s one of the most expensive sports in the world, and it’s seen as very unattainable – even sitting down and watching, you think it’s such an unattainable sport – but what I like about Formula E is that it’s very different from Formula One.
“It’s far more inclusive, and much more obtainable to the average person – even in terms of ticket prices. You don’t have to travel far away like you do in Formula One to go to racing tracks, and when I think of Formula E compared to the other motor racing sports they are way ahead when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
“When we think of representation in sports, we continually think of on-field athletes, but it’s just as important to have representation behind the camera, because those are the decision makers in terms of getting those people in front of the camera if they’re in sports broadcasting, or if they are an athlete.
“The lens that I look through is always diversity and inclusion, it has to happen behind the camera as well as in front. As a decision maker, I will look to choose someone who is diverse, who looks like me, who can share a story where someone can look at that person and think ‘that could be me’.”
The person who filled that inspirational role for LeThi as a youngster was Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he showed that it was possible to travel the world and be successful through sport – specifically bodybuilding.
As a girl in an extremely male-dominated environment in gyms at such a young age, it was a steep learning curve for LeThi. She was confronted with direct misogyny and sexism on a regular basis during her formative years, but while she may not have necessarily understood what was going on around her it gave her a steely determination that would become useful later in life.
Once LeThi began to prove herself by lifting weights on par with, and heavier than, her male counterparts, she gained both their respect and a self-belief that she could overcome obstacles.
She has certainly had tough moments in life out of the gym, becoming homeless as she moved into adulthood, but she managed to drag herself out of that situation thanks to the skills she had developed from sport over practically her entire life.
“When you’ve had a lifetime of sports, it provides very unique skillsets in terms of goal-setting,” LeThi reasoned.
“When you go to squat 200 pounds, even though your legs are shaking and telling you they’re not sure if you can, that belief system pushes you past those pain barriers.
“It was a very dark time for me being homeless and suffering from severe depression and mental health issues, and I just had a really poignant moment where I slept for two days, and I woke up on the third day in the shelter and cried for the next 24 hours. I was wondering what had become of my life, thinking that I couldn’t get any lower than that, but I had so much more to give, it wasn’t my time.
“I think I have a resilience, to pull myself up was very difficult and I had a nervous breakdown doing it, but I really do believe that sport has always been my survival method. For LGBTQ+ people, sport is so important in terms of our mental health and our social interactions.
“Every child needs to have access to sport at a very young age, because you grow up as a completely different person with a lifetime of sport. You see now, particularly in business, the best employees and executives are those who have had a lifetime of sports because of the skills they develop.”
Identifying as rainbow, LeThi was never out during her competitive career. In her mind, it simply was not an option, as non-existent representation meant it seemed like an impossibility. However, in competition it did not seem to affect her as she had to be so focused on the task at hand.
There were times when it would otherwise play on her mind, but there was no massive internal battle over whether to come out, because being LGBT+ in bodybuilding seemed so far out of reach more generally.
That changed after LeThi retired when, despite seeing more and more athletes across the sporting world coming out, there was still a significant lack of Asian representation in the community.
“It was a long process, a journey over a period of time,” she recalled.
“I never thought about being an advocate when I was getting into sport at seven years old, sitting in the reception of my gym. I knew I wanted to make an impact, but I didn’t know what that impact was.
“Obviously through different points in my life and things that I’ve gone through, it started when I began to go back home to Vietnam and calling all of the embassies and consulates there asking to meet them and starting to share my story there, and I saw how it resonated with people.
“Then looking at the sports community, I thought it still hasn’t changed in the way that it should – I still don’t see the amount of Asian athletes that I should.
“When people talk about out athletes, they’re not talking about Asian athletes, and thinking about what I have gone through and the platform I had been building, I thought I needed to use this to speak up. If I don’t, who will? The importance of me speaking up and knowing what it would mean to another Asian person was big.
“It wasn’t an easy step to suddenly share my story with the world. When I first started to do it, it was in very random chunks that actually didn’t make sense to anyone. It has taken a long time to get to this point, but I see the importance of this and the feedback I get.
“I’m sharing my story, but there are still so few Asian people that can get to the point that I have gotten to now. I’m far more successful now being who I am, standing in my truth, than I would have ever been if I hid.”
To say that LeThi is particularly passionate about Asian representation in the LGBT+ community is stating the obvious to anyone who is familiar with her work.
That is not limited purely to sport, although that is a big part of her work. With so few other Asian people being vocal about LGBT+ rights, LeThi feels a responsibility to ensure that she – and by extension her communities – are taken notice of whether that is in a sporting, political, or wider societal setting.
“I’m one of very few at the top in terms of Asian LGBTQ+ advocates at this kind of global level doing advocacy with decision makers – governments and organisations, businesses and community leaders,” LeThi said.
“That means if I don’t do this kind of travelling and I don’t meet a diverse slate of people, people never hear the story of Asian LGBTQ+ people. They never hear our challenges, they never hear our stories, and that becomes problematic when governments are trying to create policies and decisions.
“When sports federations are thinking about different policies, if they never get to hear my story and things from my community, then that becomes a challenge.
“It’s crazy the amount of rooms that I walk into where they have said I’m the first Asian person that they’ve been able to speak to in terms of hearing my story, and the challenges and barriers that my community faces. I’m one of one in terms of Asian LGBTQ+ advocates doing this high-level engagement work.
“If I use the UK as an example, when the UK talks about diversity and inclusion it is first through the black lens, and then through the South Asian lens. For some reason, East Asian people don’t even exist, and we’re the most populous community in the world but the most invisible.
“Think back to your last week of watching TV, when did you see an East Asian person? Probably not ever, not even in the newsroom which is highly unusual because we go into journalism probably much more than everything else. Globally, we only make up 1% of leading roles. The Oscars in it’s history has never had an Asian host, we don’t get to see ourselves at award ceremonies.
“You see it with the coronavirus racism that has happened, how the Asian community is being blamed for it. There has been a huge wave of hate crime all around the world, but we’re not getting the publicity or the platform of the Black Lives Matter movement. Different racial groups are pitted together, and people ask which story is more important, but all our stories are important in different contexts.
“I think of myself when I was a kid, and how much I loved sports, but I was the only Asian kid in sports – and I think of how much I was pushed out by my team, other teams and my coach because of that stereotype that Asian kids are not designed for sports. They just didn’t see many Asian kids in sports, so there’s a lot of education and unconscious bias training to be done, as well as making sure that we have a diverse slate of coaches that look like us.
“For the most part, the sports community does not understand the journey of an Asian athlete from child to professional level, and how difficult that is and all the barriers that we have to overcome on the way.
“If we make it to the level of someone like David Beckham, we are going to be one of one, and the amount of racism that we will receive is huge. I think the perfect example is Jeremy Lin, the basketball player in America – he is one of the top basketball players in the world, but he received so much racism during his professional career that in the end he went back to China to play for an Asian team.
“It was just much easier, and he was acknowledged in a completely different way. Asian athletes shouldn’t have to do that – all athletes should be able to play in a safe and nurturing environment and gain the support of their peers.”
LeThi is spearheading tangible efforts to lead that change for Asian LGBT+ youth. After running a pilot programme in Vietnam, the Amazin LeThi Foundation will launch next year in the USA and in partnership with other countries around the world.
Aiming to lift LGBT+ youth experiencing poverty and homelessness into fast-tracked careers in sports, business and education, it is something that is born out of LeThi’s own experiences – and the opportunities she wanted that were never offered to her.
She hopes it will see the number of Asian LGBT+ people in positions of influence and lead to the current barriers in place being broken down, all while giving hope to those in vulnerable positions, and in doing so speed up the progress that she has been working towards in recent years.
“Obviously sometimes it doesn’t feel as fast as I would like, because I’m only one of one, but I definitely have seen a change,” LeThi enthused.
“It’s being able to sit in front of decision makers and make them realise that these are the situations, and how we can do better. I think in the last few years we have seen many more out Asian athletes, representation of Asian people has improved in the media.
“There are still some places we have a lot of work to do, like in sport, but I feel like we’re in a very special moment in history where all the major sports events will be in Asia in the next few years, so we can really have these conversations about diversity and inclusion, and how western countries need to really rally around different communities.
“When you look at Team GB, or the US National Women’s Soccer Team, you need to look at those pictures and think about how white these teams are. There’s something wrong with that, because the face of every country is changing, and we are the fastest growing community in the world, but still the most invisible.
“Sport is a platform that every country has. It is a language that every country understands, it brings people together.
“What we’re seeing now with this level of athlete activism, we’ve never seen it before. Everyone kneeling, teams just walking off the field, you can fire Colin Kaepernick, but you can’t fire all of us.
“I think coming out of the pandemic, sport gives us this opportunity to change hearts and minds and to shift social consciousness, and we have to use sport in a way to do that. We have the Tokyo Olympics coming up, and all eyes will be on Japan. It’s a catalyst effect, you need to have all the major decision makers asking what we can do better.”
Learn more about Amazin LeThi’s work at the links below:
Health and Fitness writer: https://www.livestrong.com/user/amazin_lethi_cpt/