Despite making her intentions known in 2019, freestyle ski star Eileen Gu’s decision to compete for China at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics still continues to spark heated discussions online.
Fellow athletes in the sport have been asking the 18-year-old why she decided to represent a country accused of human rights abuse, reported the New York Post.
A switch in allegiance
Born to an American father and Chinese mother in San Francisco, Gu last represented the United States at 16, when she earned her first World Cup victory at Seiser Alm Slopestyle in 2019.
In June 2019, she surprised the sporting world after announcing that she would represent China.
“I have decided to compete for China in the 2022 Winter Olympics,” Gu announced on Instagram. “The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mum was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help promote the sport I love.”
Gu did not talk about her U.S. citizenship in her social media post, but her athlete profile on Red Bull claimed that she acquired Chinese citizenship by naturalization at 15, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“At the age of 15, US-born Gu decided to give up her American passport and naturalize as a Chinese citizen in order to compete for China in Beijing—because Chinese law doesn’t recognize dual nationality,” the now-deleted passage read.
Olympic athletes with dual citizenship are allowed to choose which country to represent at the Games. Since China does not recognize dual citizenship, some are questioning if she had relinquished her American passport, reported the South China Morning Post.
She would go on to carry the Chinese flag, placing second at the Cardrona halfpipe World Cup that same year and winning both the halfpipe World Cup and the slopestyle competition at the Snow Rodeo World Cup in Calgary in 2020. She made history for being the first to win back-to-back World Cup competitions at the same venue in two different events.
“Since I was little, I’ve always said when I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” Gu told ESPN in a 2020 interview. “I preserve it by having friends and being able to communicate with people because that’s the best way to transmit culture.”
In 2021, she also made competition history at the Winter X Games in Colorado by winning two golds out of three medals while competing as a rookie.
A loss for Team U.S.A.
But while many Chinese fans consider Gu’s decision as a major win for Team China, her fellow athletes in America see it as a lost opportunity for the U.S.
Former Winter X Games gold medallist Jen Hudak told the Post, “It is not my place to judge, but Eileen is from California, not from China, and her decision seems opportunistic.”
“She became the athlete she is because she grew up in the United States, where she had access to premier training grounds and coaching that, as a female, she might not have had in China,” she added. “I think she would be a different skier if she grew up in China. This makes me sad. It would be nice to see the medals going to America.”
Freeski pioneer Kristi Leskinen told ESPN, “On one hand, she almost certainly wouldn’t be the athlete she is today without being born, raised and trained in America. But it’s equally difficult to imagine she’d have anywhere near the recognition, sponsorship deals or resources if she hadn’t chosen to represent China. So, while she often cites inspiration as her motivation, for some it’s hard not to see opportunism in it. Especially at a time when the WTA is suspending its events in China out of fear for a female athlete’s safety.”
The reaction is not new to Gu, who had reportedly received death threats online from random people.
“My direct messages were absolutely flooded,” Gu told Time. “It’s hard to read through thousands of assumptions and just hateful things when you’re at such an impressionable stage of your life.”
According to Gu, she believes sports is the best way to unite people and countries with different beliefs.
“It’s really easy to use sport as a form of unity and communication and friendship, because everybody is working toward a common goal,” she added. “Because sport really is blind to race, gender, religion and nationality; it’s all just about pushing the human limit.”
When asked about the human rights accusations made against China, Gu declined to comment.
A major win for Team China
Gu, who speaks both English and Mandarin, has become a celebrated athlete in China, landing endorsement deals with Adidas, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret, Apple, the Bank of China and China Mobile. She has appeared on the cover of Chinese editions of magazines such as Vogue,GQ, Elle and Marie Claire, according to the Economist.
There are high expectations that Gu will deliver the gold at the Games as she takes on three events: big air, half-pipe and slopestyle. Her performance will undoubtedly elevate her star power in her country of choice.
“I’m really excited but I don’t think that anybody going to the Olympics would ever say they are 100 percent ready,” the Olympics website quoted Gu as saying. “The only thing I can do is my best on the day. If that is a gold medal then I’ll be super-hyped, and if that is not, then I will still be super-hyped because I work hard.”