Michelle Yeoh exclusive: “Sport is a language of love and respect and dignity.”
October 18, 2023
After her election as an IOC member, Malaysia’s Oscar-winning actress shares with Olympics.com what she is hoping to accomplish in her eight-year tenure. The Hollywood icon also opens up about her sporting past and her pride in Malaysian badminton heroes and other stars.
Academy award-winning actress Michelle Yeoh is “humbled and thrilled” at becoming a member of the International Olympic Committee.
The Malaysian superstar was one of eight new members named at the IOC Session in Mumbai on Tuesday (17 October).
Yeoh, who became Asia’s first winner of the Oscar for Best Actress in March, has a long history of philanthropy and has visited refugee camps in her capacity as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
With her husband, former motorsport chief Jean Todt, she has also campaigned internationally for road safety.
Yeoh was visibly excited as she told Olympics.com about what she is looking forward to doing during her eight-year tenure at the IOC.
“Over the years that I’ve been working with UNDP, I realise the importance and the platform of what a family like this would bring… would help me with the causes or the work that I would like to do, ” she said.
“Today when I hear them presenting the refugee teams, I feel my work is almost cut out for me right there and then. And that being part of this family will enable me to use sports which is a universal language of love on so many different levels. And if you’ve been to the refugee camps, you will understand how it will help especially with the young children.
“Sports is something that brings people together. And you can see with the Olympics, it crosses borders, it crosses culture, it crosses language. It is a language of love and respect and dignity. With that, we can exercise this goodwill on a much much deeper and meaningful, but so necessary, place. So I hope that they will welcome me into the refugee team and allow me to work together with them and bring this joy and sense of hope to the 110 million refugees around the world.”
Michelle Yeoh: from Olympic dream to Hollywood star
Having been a model before establishing herself as a star of Hong Kong cinema, Yeoh became familiar to Western audiences by appearing as a spy in the 1997 James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ before starring in ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’.
Her proficiency in martial arts has been key to her career, not least in 2022’s ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ for which she received the Best Actress Oscar.
But martial arts were not Yeoh’s first pursuits. She was a keen athlete in her youth and excelled in squash.
“As a child, I ran, I swam, I was into springboard diving,” she said. “I actually was the junior champion of Malaysia in squash. So I was exposed to all forms of sports. I learnt at a very young age what it means to be sporting because it teaches you discipline and good behaviour.
“Ever since I was little… you know, when you watch, when you race, when you compete, I had that one dream that maybe I could be an Olympian (laughs). But then, of course, I didn’t manage it because I’m not as gifted in that way. And my career went to another place.
“I went to England. I started to do dance and so I was into other physical activities. But since I started my career as an actor, I went very much back into the sports of martial arts and action and things like that. So it’s always been part of my life and it just seems that’s it come, what I would say, the full circle.”
Unsurprisingly, Yeoh was delighted at the news that squash will make its Olympic debut at the Los Angeles 2028 Games.
She joked, “I think people are going to think it’s me who did it… no, but I’ll take credit! No, it’s something that has been very dear to, especially from Malaysia, Tunku Imran who was the squash federation president. And that they have been trying forever to get squash into the Olympics. I was so thrilled when they announced that for LA28, squash will be included.”
Yeoh still practises martial arts “because I still do action movies”, but admitted she largely sticks to shadow boxing as “that’s the easiest”.
She added, “I do my karate, I do my kicks, I do all the basic things. Because every time you walk on the stage, there is no one form. If it was a period movie, then you’ll be moving around with all the, you know, swords and things. And if it was a modern contemporary action movie, then you’ll be, like, sprinting down the roads and street fighting.
“When you do action films, it’s very important that you give respect to your job. I’m not a black belt per se in taekwondo or karate because we learn all of them. I mastered the basics so I can do my frontside back kicks, roundhouse kicks, all that. But I don’t specialise in one particular form.
“When I watch muay thai or karate or taekwondo, or judo or boxing, it’s thrilling because I understand the discipline. I understand the work they have to go through before they can achieve that.”
Michelle Yeoh calls Malaysia’s badminton stars “our country’s pride and joy”
While squash was Yeoh’s childhood pastime, badminton is one of Malaysia’s most popular sport with Lee Zii Jia and former men’s doubles world champions Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik attracting movie-star like followings.
When asked if she followed their exploits, Yeoh replied, “Oh, yes. How can you not? They are our country’s pride and joy.
“The beauty of sport is competition. It’s friendly competition. We all want to win. But how you win and when you win and if you don’t win, it’s that coming together in spirit. So we are very proud of our badminton players, our cyclists, and also our divers. I hope there will be more and we have great squash players as well.
“I look at athletes and I have great respect for each of them, no matter what sport it is. I know the love and devotion, the determination and dedication they have to put in every day, the sacrifices and what they have to do to be where they are. There are certain sports that I look to more than others, but when I watch them, it’s like you’re watching the best at their best.”
Michelle Yeoh on mental health
Yeoh sees parallels between the ups and downs in her career as an actor and those of a sportsperson – especially when it comes to the topic of mental health.
She explained, “As an athlete or someone from the art world, the entertainment business, the level of expectancy, the level of commitment, the level of what you do and the lifespan of what you do – ‘How high can you go? How low can you fall?’ – really affects the mental health of an artist, an athlete. So we need to have empathy and sympathy. And the most important thing is to find an outlet.
“The other place I was looking at was the (Olympic Foundation for) Culture and Heritage and especially using art as a way of expression. It’s not just for athletes and older people, but it’s also for the youth and the young children where they find a way and means through art. It’s not just painting or sculpture. It’s dance, it’s singing, it’s performing arts. I hope and believe that that is also very much part of what I can bring to the table because of the experiences that I have.”
Yeoh is one of five new individual members of the IOC, the others being Israel’s first Olympic medallist and Israeli Olympic committee president Yael Arad, Hungarian sports administrator Balazs Furjes, German sports events manager Michael Mronz, and Peruvian politican and volleyball Olympic medallist Cecilia Tait.
International Table Tennis Federation head, Petra Sorling from Sweden, and the Republic of Korea’s Kim Jae-youl, president of the International Skating Union, joined courtesy of their positions with international federations, while Tunisian Olympic Committee president Mehrez Boussayene was elected as an ex-officio member.