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By Elaine Dunn | February 2022

 

Among the many controversies surrounding the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the one where the central character cannot win in the social media game is the one involving freestyle skier Eileen Gu.

Even if you do not follow winter sports, a flip through any news site or newspaper will bring up something about Gu, most probably something akin to, “Born and raised in America, skiing for China.”

The California-born 18-year-old supposedly “renounced” her U.S citizenship in 2019 so as to ski for China, her mother’s native country, after a meeting with China President Xi Jinping.  The reason for her decision?  To “raise awareness for snow sports in China.”  Noble as that sounds, it’s not well-received in the U.S. and, to a much lesser degree, in China.

Of course, the cloud over her citizenship persists – spending annual summer months in China does not a Chinese citizen make.  Her refusal to answer questions about the issue is not helping to clear the air either.  Instead, it has stoked suspicion.  And her insistence, "I'm American when I'm in the U.S., and I'm Chinese when I'm in China," may work for an ordinary Chinese American, but not an Olympian.

The Olympic Charter requires athletes possess citizenship in the country they represent.  With China’s stringent laws on citizenship and where dual citizenship is not recognized, many questions surround how Gu can compete for China with a U.S. passport.  Did China bypass its own rules to make that happen to gain Olympic medals?

True, it is not uncommon for athletes to represent another country in international competitions.  The former NHL goalie Jeremy Smith, now known as Jieruimi Shimisi, and has no Chinese ancestry, is playing for the first-ever Chinese ice hockey team (which, by the way, is made up of 11 Canadians, seven Americans, one Russian and six homegrown players!).  Another California-born figure skater, Beverly Zhu, also chose to represent China (both her parents are immigrants from China).

So why is all the hate piling on just Gu?  Why is she such a “lightning rod, and why is she being singled out as “traitor?”

Reasons are aplenty!  China is not a country well-liked by many at the moment: its lack of openness about COVID-19 probably led to unleashing a pandemic on the world; the government makes no shame of being a surveillance state and, it is notorious for infringing on intellectual property.  U.S.-China relations is at an all-time low.

Other reasons

Gu’s gold medal in the women’s freeski big air event did not sit well with the competitive American spirit. Then she subsequently scored a silver at the freeski slopestyle event and another gold in the halfpipe event, making her the first “action sports” athlete to win three medals at the same Olympics.  Quite an enviable feat, and none credited to the American flag.  Had she “failed” like figure skater Zhu, she might have escaped the wrath from Americans!  Zhu had been on the receiving end of harsh criticisms from the Chinese public for placing 27th in figure skating.  (“Failed” is not exactly the correct term as anyone who made it to the Olympics cannot be considered a failure.)

China’s treatment of the millions of Uyghurs has been called to attention front and center in the international human rights arena.  Gu’s decision to represent China is seen as a form of tacit support for a country well-known for not abiding by international human rights conventions; and, also, a country that’s increasingly hostile to the U.S.  Unpopular positions to take.

Dislike for China, the country, conveniently translates and attaches to Gu as she is far and foremost the “face” of China athletes at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

And from a very practical standpoint, as a former Winter X games gold medalist pointed out: had Gu been born and raised in China, she most likely would not have been afforded the quality of training and coaching that made her the skier she is today. 

Furthermore, many of her critics have suggested that Gu only decided to compete for China as a publicity move to garner unique fame and fortune in China.  (News agency Tianxiashangwang reported her 20-plus sponsors have earned her multimillions since January 2021.)

In China, where girls had long been marginalized, Gu has attained super celebrity and national hero status.  Ironically, Nathan Chen, gold medalist in the men’s figure skating event who is born, bred and trained in the U.S. and competing for the U.S., is labeled a “traitor” by the Chinese in China for representing the U.S.!  Their nickname for him is “rh” for “rǔ huá, 辱華,” meaning “disgracing China.” Hate goes both ways!  Which brings up the following point:

While white Americans who elected to compete for China have not received much, if any, backlash from the public, Chinese Americans or Asian Americans will always have their ethnicity, race and nationality intertwined and scrutinized in international sports competitions.

The venom directed at Gu’s decision to represent China is largely racial loyalty-based.  To many in the United States, Gu has chosen the side of the enemy.  As irritational as this view may be, it highlights the expectations of “Americanism” and the political whiteness experienced by Asian Americans.  Gu’s critics see her choice as a betrayal of her American citizenship.  And Chinese sees Nathan Chen as the “traitor.”  Chinese Americans just can’t win off-podium at the Beijing Olympics!

On the other hand, to the Chinese CCP, Gu’s privileged American upbringing and parentage (mother is a Chinese immigrant educated in the U.S. and father is an American) do not jive 100% with the Chinese Communist Party ideals either.  Still, that did not stop China’s General Administration of Sport to send her a letter urging her to “strive for greater glory for the Party and the people.”

Being projected to superstar status accorded her privileges ordinary Chinese citizens do not have, such as access to Instagram.  This fact was not lost on many Chinese citizens. One netizen commented, “Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from the mainland cannot, why you got such special treatment as a Chinese citizen?"  Gu’s dismissive (and erroneous) reply that “anyone can download a VPN” from the App Store did not help matters.  Another netizen promptly responded, “Literally, I’m not ‘anyone.’  Literally, it is illegal for me to use a VPN.”  (VPNs must be purchased outside of China’s Great Firewall at a hefty fee, and still does not always guarantee devices to bypass the firewall.  In addition, unlicensed VPNs are banned by the Ministry of Industry for personal use.) 

Gu’s ignorance of the daily struggles of the “laobaixing” (老百姓, ordinary people) and how Gu does not really represent the Chinese people was further highlighted by an article, “What does Eileen Gu’s success have to do with ordinary people?”  The article was censored and has since been removed from the media.  Juxtaposed against a video of a mother of eight with her neck shackled to the wall of a doorless shack with glowing write-ups of an adopted citizen, the article asserted that, “Ten thousand sports champions can't wash away the humiliation of one enslaved woman, not to mention tens of thousands of them.”

Another faux pas that put her in another social media maelstrom: Gu was filmed not singing the Chinese national anthem at the medal ceremony. Internet censors had to step in to “restrict” that discussion.

For Gu, she’s Stanford-bound this fall.  She also has modeling gigs in the offing.  And she insists her end-goal in electing to compete for China is to be a role model for young girls in China. “I want to be able to have those medals and to be able to feel like I changed someone's life, or changed the sport, or introduced the sport to a country where it wasn't before," she said. 

She further added, “If people don’t believe me and if people don’t like me, that’s their loss. They’re never going to win the Olympics,” which probably will not endear her to her critics.

Gu’s “privileged” status in China angers many ordinary Chinese.  It highlights how the Chinese government has heaped resources on Gu while ignoring the country’s native-born laobaixing.  Chinese media is also beginning to question how long she’ll put China first.  The former editor-in-chief of The Global Times warned “it was still unclear which country she would like to associate with when she was older.”

And will she fall under the same fate as other “return-to-mother-country” personalities such as Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was charged with spying once she falls out of favour?

John Davis, author of “Olympic Games Effect: How Sports Marketing Builds Strong Brands,” noted “society place outsized expectations on top athletes to be role models, arbiters of public opinion and politically savvy (as long as they agree with our point of view). This is not to excuse the human right abuses in China, as those are clearly of deep concern … [Eileen] is an ambassador for sport, not politics. That may change in the years ahead, if her international reputation grows, but for now she appears to simply be focused on having a positive public image without touching third-rail issues.”

For Chinese/Asian Americans who have been caught up in this bicultural identity issue the day they were born, we all wish for the day when we are not forced to make a choice.  But it’s also clear that America is not the only “racist” country.  China is just as bad.  But perhaps because of censorship, the venom is just not as “out there.”

 

 

 

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A smiling Gu in furry panda hat as she got on podium to accept her second gold medal

 

Keywords:  Eileen Gu, Gu, Beijing Olympics, freestyle skier, Winter Olympics, Olympic controversies, Chinese American Olympic athletes

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