Kieran Tuntivate is a Thai American runner and recent graduate of Harvard University. (Photo: courtesy Kieran Tuntivate)
Kieran Tuntivate is a Thai American runner and recent graduate of Harvard University. (Photo: courtesy Kieran Tuntivate)

Traditional thinking about college sports does not usually conjure images of Asian athletes, which Asian students say is hindering diversity on the playing field.   

"I know when I was younger, looking at some of the really successful Ivy League runners, none of them were Asian American," said Kieran Tuntivate, a Thai American runner and recent graduate of Harvard University. "So, there wasn't really a person I could see myself becoming or model myself after."  

Tuntivate, 23, said he believes a lack of role models for young Asian American athletes leads to a loss of diversity.  

"I think whatever barriers there are, are in terms of representation," he said.  

Kieran Tuntivate broke the 4-minute mile in February 2020, the first ever at Harvard University. (Photo: courtesy Kieran Tuntivate)

Tuntivate said other barriers also exist, like assumptions that Asian American college athletes are not committed to athletics or that they might sacrifice athletics for academics.   

He broke the 4-minute mile in February 2020, the first ever at Harvard University, and held a grade-point average between 3.6 and 3.7 on a scale where 4.0 is the highest.   

His successful track career made local and international headlines, as he balanced athleticism with stellar academics.  

Ivy League universities like Harvard do not offer athletic scholarships. Instead, most of the Ivies — a nickname for U.S. colleges and universities that are well-established and highly competitive — offer needs-based admission that awards financial aid to those who have been accepted on merit.  

Also, coaches may lend their support to applicants, according to the Ivy League's official website. Ivy League colleges base admissions decisions on academic achievements, as well as personal strengths and accomplishments, which can include athletic abilities, the website states.   

Tuntivate said he knows most of the few Asian American Ivy League track athletes. He points to his friend Allen Siegler, a half-Thai runner at Yale University, who he said he feels an "inherent kinship."

"We don't really talk about it much, but I think there is a sort of kinship that we inherently feel, as we're both Asian American and both actually half-Thai. There aren't many people like us in the sport," Tuntivate said. 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which represents college athletes nationwide, compiles statistics on athletic diversity across its three divisions, each of which represent different policies held by institutions toward college athletics.   

Across the NCAA's three divisions, 2% of student athletes identified as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander out of 498,691 athletes, compared with 64% white, according to the NCAA

Kristen Enriquez, the incoming captain of Yale University's soccer team, is Filipina American. (Photo: courtesy Kristen Enriquez)

Diversity varies by school, sport  

Diversity in college sports is an issue beyond Asian Americans and the Ivy League, said 21-year-old Kristen Enriquez, the incoming captain of Yale University's soccer team, who is Filipina American.  

The discussion about diversity is a "larger" issue that should expand to include other ethnic minorities, Enriquez said. 

"When you don't necessarily see yourself represented at a high level, growing up, you kind of question, 'Why is that?'" she said.  

Of the 498,691 student athletes in the NCAA, 34% are white males, 11% Black males, 11% "other" males, while 30% are white females, 5% Black females and 9% "other."

The website of the Ivy League Council of Presidents notes that an "expanded commitment" to diversity and inclusion are a core value of all eight Ivy League schools. They did not respond to a request for comment on this story.  

There has been forward movement.   

In 2018, Victoria Chun was named Yale's director of athletics, the first Asian American and first woman appointed to the position. She is also the first Asian American woman in that role at all the NCAA's 353 Division I schools.

Shortly after she started her position, Chun noted that Yale's athletics department will seek and support a "wide variety of talents, ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences" and that such diversity will make the department "stronger." 

Enriquez said it was "empowering" to see Chun's appointment.   

"It definitely helps, seeing an Asian American woman as our director of athletics," said Enriquez.  

Yale athletics has done a "great job" discussing diversity both within Enriquez's team and in the department. That focus ramped up after the death of George Floyd in May, she said.  

Yale's athletics department has celebrated diversity and combated racism at this time.  Enriquez credited Chun for leading that effort.

Chris Downer is a Dartmouth College graduate. (Photo: courtesy Chris Downer)

Prejudice and perception   

Chris Downer, a 2011 Dartmouth College graduate, played hockey throughout New England and in Canada, both for his high school and just prior to college. Now 31, he recalled several occasions where other hockey players commented about him looking Asian. Downer is half-Chinese and half-American.  

"We looked pretty Asian with a helmet on," said Downer. "People would make comments" about his appearance.  

Downer co-captained Dartmouth's rugby team, where he said the team was more diverse. He described the team as "very diverse" and a "melting pot," where he did not feel as if he was the lone minority or lone Asian on the field.   

Chris Downer played hockey throughout New England and in Canada. (Photo: courtesy Chris Downer)

Regarding a perception that some Asian parents, families or cultures favor academic performance over athletic development, Tuntivate, Enriquez and Downer said that was not their experience.

Tuntivate said his Thai father has been the most supportive person in his career as he chased his athletic goals. His coach was also behind him, he said.   

"He's traveled to almost all my college meets. He bikes with me, as well, when I'm running so I have company, because a lot of long-distance running can get pretty lonely," Tuntivate said. 

Enriquez's parents have supported her financially and emotionally throughout her soccer career, she said, and she remains "very grateful" for their belief in her. Her family was "extremely supportive" of the difficult decision to skip an academic semester to focus on her role as team captain, after COVID-19 upended competition schedules in 2020.   

Downer said his parents were "really flexible" and "really understood" his passion for sports but made sure to balance that with his academic work.  

At the Ivy League, "you're surrounded by some incredibly smart, incredibly motivated people in the classroom, and you can play a sport at the highest collegiate level," said Downer. "It's a great way for people to aspire to have both — great academics, great athletics."