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ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Eileen Gu is one of the finest freeskiers in the world, graceful and daring and utterly fearless. Off the skis, she possesses model-level poise, speaks two languages fluently, plays deft piano, is preparing to attend Stanford this fall, and exhibits the kind of compassion and empathy that allows her millions of social media followers to feel they truly know her.
In an Olympics short on Phelps/Biles-style American athletic royalty, she would be at the forefront of Team USA … if she weren’t already skiing for China.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) February 8, 2022
Gu — who competes as Gu Ailing in China — captured gold in freeskiing big air Tuesday morning, Beijing time, in the first of three events she’s slated to run during these Games. Next week, she’ll compete in slopestyle (a combination of rails and jumps) and halfpipe, and she’s the odds-on favorite to win both of those as well.
One look at her exuberance, her joy, her absolute confidence in the air above Beijing, and it’s easy to see why the entire nation of China has fallen in love with her. Gu’s face adorns billboards, commercials and products all over China, and Olympic gold will only magnify her already massive reach.
But why China and not the United States for Gu? That’s a complex story, and one that will have significant political ramifications going forward, no matter how much Gu wants to stay out of the fray.
Why she chose China
Eileen Gu was born in San Francisco in September 2003, the child of an American father and a Chinese mother. Raised by her mother and maternal grandmother, Gu maintained a deep connection to China even as she grew up American. She attended a private high school where she competed in track, and steadily began making a name for herself on the international skiing scene. (One often-told anecdote from Gu’s past: her mother encouraged her to try freeskiing rather than racing because she thought it would be safer. Not so.)
Her skiing accolades piled up. She was the first woman to land a double cork 1440 — two flips, three rotations — in competition. She won seven golds in international competitions, such as the X-Games and World Championships. And then she made the most momentous decision of her life.
On June 7, 2019, Gu declared her intention to ski for China in an Instagram post. “I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud of my American upbringings,” she said, and then laid out her intentions.
“The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love,” Gu wrote. “Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations. If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true.”
Social media greeted her decision with suspicion and scorn; critics lobbed the usual accusations of greed, naïveté and lack of proper patriotism in Gu’s direction, and likely will even moreso now that she’s carrying through on her Olympic dream. Given China’s stated intention to become a winter sports powerhouse, many critics believe Gu is being used as a glittering, gold-medal-winning pawn in the ongoing geopolitcal chess match between China and the United States.
Gu isn’t the only American athlete competing for China; figure skaters Beverly Zhu and Ashley Lin, as well as several hockey players, are among China’s contingent at the Olympics. But Gu is by far the most notable, most famous, and most likely to bring home hardware.
“It is possible that this decision will work well for Ms. Gu,” said John Soares, an adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame with experience in Olympic history. “She might become a hero in both the USA and China. It is possible, too, she could end up being denounced in both countries.”
Gu has not addressed the question of whether she renounced her U.S. citizenship, although the IOC requires athletes to hold passports in the name of countries they represent. Article 3 of China’s Nationality Law notes that China does not recognize dual nationality for any Chinese national. Late last month, the Wall Street Journal inquired about a story on Red Bull’s website that indicated Gu had given up her American passport, and shortly afterward, the story was altered to remove any mention of Gu’s passport. (The original passage is still visible on a cached version of the page from December 15, 2021.)
After her gold medal win Tuesday, Gu once again sidestepped the question of her citizenship, saying “I definitely feel as though I’m just as American as I am Chinese … Both continue to be supportive of me because they understand my mission is to use sport as a force for unity.”
American celebrity, Chinese icon
In the weeks leading up to the Games, Gu’s public image has focused exclusively on the joy of being an Olympic athlete, and the rosy possibilities that have arisen for her ... and, not coincidentally, for the greater nation of China.
“I’ve always said my goal is to globally spread the sport I love to kids, especially girls, and to shift sport culture toward one motivated by passion,” Gu wrote on Instagram last week. “Now, after hearing that over 300 MILLION Chinese people have started winter sports for fun, I’m blown away by how far we have come. I’m proud to have done my best to spread a positive and personal message, and to have reached audiences willing to listen to me.”
Gu counts American companies such as Red Bull, Victoria’s Secret and Oakley among her sponsors, and she’s modeled for Estee Lauder, Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton. She’s a regular fixture in fashion magazines and on action-sports tours … but those environments aren’t ones where she’ll face hard questioning about the political realities of her decision to align herself with China. Her recent essay for the New York Times delves eloquently into the mechanics of overcoming fear while avoiding any mention at all of nationality.
In an environment where American athletes speak their minds on every social and political subject of the moment, Gu’s silence is notable. She has shut down all public communication outside of purely sport-related quotes, focusing entirely on what she intends to do to help promote skiing in China prior to the Games, and on how her first runs have gone while in Beijing.
Going forward, the question for Gu will be how much she’s truly able to carry through on her intention to inspire children, particularly girls. Promoting the value of winter sports is one thing, but Gu’s profoundly Western sensibilities are sharply at odds with modern Chinese rule and aims. Speaking up in America can result in a Twitter apology; speaking up in China can result in so much worse.
“Even if an athlete works hard to stay on officials’ good side, there are risks in dealing with Communist regimes,” Soares said. He pointed to Eastern Europe during the Cold War as a comparable example.
“When sports officials wanted a Czechoslovakian athlete, a world-class tennis and ice hockey player, to focus on hockey, the state bank refused to let him withdraw the money he needed to buy tennis rackets,” Soares said. “More ominously, in 1950 a number of Czechoslovakian hockey players were arrested and sentenced to hard labor in uranium mines. Their supposed crime was plotting to flee the country — even though they had passed up opportunities to defect at earlier international events.”
Going forward, going back
Whether she wants it or not, Gu is a visible symbol of the extreme tension that now exists between China and the United States. Athletes do leave Team USA to compete for other countries, but rarely at the top of their game; for most, the decision to compete for another nation based on family lineage is an easier path to the Olympics.
So the fact that Gu is now winning gold for China, not the United States, is a massive public relations win for a nation fully willing and prepared to dominate the world conversation going forward.
“It is hard to know how this situation will play out,” Soares said. “There are few precedents for this course of action.” Soares cited the case of Zola Budd, a South African runner who competed for Britain in the 1980s because South Africa, then in the era of apartheid, was banned from the Olympics. Budd’s decision drew criticism from both countries, but her situation differs from Gu’s in that she had no option to compete for her home country. Gu, on the other hand, would have led Team USA, both on the snow and in pre-Olympics coverage.
“I’m American when I’m in the U.S., and Chinese when I’m in China,” Gu has often said, most recently in the mixed zone after winning gold Tuesday. It’s an easy line, but the Chinese government may not be so glib about Gu’s two worlds. What she does and says in America, for instance, could have severe repercussions in China.
And yet, Gu continues to insist that her mission, and her focus, are purely apolitical, charitable and motivational. After her gold medal victory, she addressed the question of whether she could satisfy fans, and critics, of both nations.
“I’m not trying to keep everyone happy,” she said. “I’m an 18-year-old girl out here living my best life. I’m out here having a great time … It doesn’t matter if other people are happy or not. I’m doing my best. I’m enjoying the entire process and using my voice to create as much positive change as I can in an area that is personal and relevant to myself.”
Then Gu addressed her critics more directly. “If other people don’t believe that’s where I’m coming from, that just reflects they don’t have the empathy to empathize with a good heart, because maybe they don’t share the same morals I do. I’m not going to try to placate people who are uneducated and are probably never going to experience the kind of joy and gratitude and love that I am fortunate to experience on a daily basis.”
And finally, the coup de grace: “If people don’t believe me and people don’t like me,” she said, “that's their loss. They’re never going to the Olympics.”
Among those in the audience to watch Gu’s gold: tennis star Peng Shuai, the focus of worldwide concern last November when she alleged that she was the victim of sexual assault from a former Chinese government official … and subsequently disappeared for several weeks before recanting her charges.
“I’m really happy she was here today,” Gu said. “It’s a big honor. I’m grateful that she’s happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again.”
It’s a quote China couldn’t have scripted any better.