In a Winter Olympics sweep, Eileen Gu has consolidated her place as one of the biggest sports stars in the world, not to mention one of the most politically divisive.
The California native has won two medals in the competition for China and is going for a third in the women’s freestyle ski halfpipe on Friday, known to be her best event. But Gus’ success comes in line with a very controversial winter game and an increasingly strained relationship between China and the United States, which directly challenges her insistence that sports and her skiing career are apolitical.
Gu, 18, has posted victory after victory in international competition ahead of the Olympics. She is currently one of the most visible athletes in China and beyond, having appeared in fashion magazines and representing Chinese and American brands including Red Bull, Louis Vuitton and JD.com.
In her Olympic debut, Gu jumped ahead of her competitors in the final race of the women’s freestyle skiing big air with a double 1620, where she won gold with a trick she had never performed in competition or training. She made another comeback at the last minute in her second event, where she won silver in slopestyle and finished less than a point from first place.
As her profile has risen, Gu has faced issues that put her on the spot in the growing American-Chinese divide. Journalists asked for her comments on the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault on social media, then disappeared from public view. Her disappearance raised concerns about her well-being and renewed calls on the United States to boycott the Olympics. Shuai later refused to come forward with the accusation and was seen attending Gus’ first Olympic event.
“I’m really grateful she’s, yes, happy and healthy and out here doing her part,” Gu said of Shuai.
Gu was also asked to contact a stream of online insults against Olympic figure skaters Zhu Yi, another American-born athlete competing for China, who fell below a previous performance. When Chinese viewers attacked her for her background as well as her mistakes, Zhu became yet another symbol of the baggage that comes with being caught between the two superpowers. Gu praised Zhus’ abilities and added “mistakes and pressure are all part of sports.”
It is not uncommon for an athlete to be born in a country and then make the decision to compete under another flag. But China does not recognize dual citizenship for Chinese citizens, and Gus’ decision has been put under particularly intense scrutiny. Journalists have repeatedly questioned whether she still holds U.S. citizenship, their interest being heightened by Gus’ evasive response.
While a response will somehow not change the competition, it may tip the scale of public opinion in one of the countries Gu is trying to judge, said Mark Dreyer, author of “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to “. Be the best. “And if Gu has been allowed to keep both nationalities, it may incur anger over discrimination.
“I understand why she does it, but I also understand why people are not very happy about it and cry ugly,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to play on both sides these days given the political situation.”
Her Aside from her status as an Olympic gold medalist, fashion model and upcoming newcomer from Stanford, Gu insists she’s like everyone else. She is comfortable in her athletic prowess, but modest when it comes to being too much more.
“Am I an international superstar?” she asks, half breathless in disbelief, in response to a question about her growing fame. She laughs at the crowd: “I can not imagine it at all.”
Straightforwardly and eloquently, Gu sounds the most experienced when she rattles answers she has given hundreds of times – about her ambitions to pave the way for young female athletes, her cultural fluid ability to tweak two ethnic identities or her 2019 decision to compete. for her mother’s homeland China. Other moments feel more spontaneous – telling about a back and forth with her mother, stroking her phone to show journalists the gold medal she has shown on her home screen – and highlighting the natural charisma that has attracted so many of her followers.
“Sorry – the picture of the cat on your phone is so cute, I have an orange cat too,” she exclaims in the middle of a press release. “I got him from Shanghai and he looks like that. Sorry.”
Known by her Chinese fans as Gu Ailing, she has loved herself through her embrace of local culture, and she has effortlessly dropped references to her penchant for dumplings, red braised pork, meatballs and Peking duck. The TV tower she saw on top of the Big Air Shougang structure is the same one she sees from her home in Beijing, she told reporters in both Mandarin and English after winning her first medal there.
“It really feels like I’m competing at my own doorstep,” she said.
At Beijing Nanshan Ski Resort, where Gu trains, about 50 fans gathered to watch Gu win gold last week as the club aired the event across 10 TVs and a big screen. “At first we were all anxious,” said Wang Haijia, head of events and new media at the resort. When it became clear that Gu had won, viewers cheered enthusiastically and pumped their fists in the air.
A spectator at the resort, Lian Lian, was close to tears. The 26-year-old, who started skiing about five years ago and uses Gu-branded skis, laughed a little at the thought of looking up to someone several years younger than herself. But in addition to attracting Gus’ natural athletic talent, Lian said she’s also attracted to her calls for women to pursue the things they enjoy.
“Before I went skiing, I had nothing I was passionate about,” she said. “But now I can say that I really love skiing.”
Although Gu is much loved in China – social media users are obsessed with everything from her sleep plan to her travel desires – she can still risk alienating fans. Her claim of relatability was recently undermined by a claim that VPNs or virtual private networks used to bypass China’s Internet censors are widely available in China. For some users of social media is comment highlighted the privilege her American upbringing has given her.
Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s tabloid Global Times, also warned against linking too much nationalist sentiment to Gus’ Olympic success. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, Hu wrote that it is still uncertain how Gu will determine his nationality in the future, and that the deterioration of US-China relations could make it difficult to be “Americans in America and Chinese in China”.
Despite Gus’ attempts to maintain impartiality, the discourse around her is symbolic of the growing rift between the two sides she represents, who both want to demand her for their own. U.S. opponents have criticized Gu for turning her back on her home. Chinese fans have welcomed Gus’ remarks as they are challenged on her Chinese affiliation, and they repeat her own words on TikTok, “Cry ab it,” in response to American jealousy.
“Sports and politics and business are connected, in China perhaps more than anywhere else,” Dreyer said. “You’re trying to separate the three threads and you can not. And I think she represents this perfectly.”
For Gu, who has averted such questions since her first victory and still has another gold medal in her binoculars, dealing with criticism and pressure challenges she is already well accustomed to.
“I would be lying if I said I was 100% good at ignoring 100% of all the messages I get,” Gu said. “I’m just trying to listen to the positive, to feel the support, to take the pressure off myself and to ignore the hatred because they do not know what they are talking about.”