China Loves This Olympian. America Has Mixed Feelings

18-year-old Eileen Gu, born and raised in US, will compete for China as its best chance for gold
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 1, 2022 12:17 PM CST
US-Born Olympian Is China's Best Hope for Gold
China's Eileen Gu waves to the camera after competing in the women's halfpipe skiing qualifiers of the US Grand Prix and World Cup on March 19, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen, Colo.   (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times via AP, File)

Eileen Gu "is, without debate, the most dominant woman in freeskiing," per ESPN. The 18-year-old San Francisco native is therefore the favorite to win gold in big air, halfpipe, and slopestyle freestyle skiing events at the Beijing Olympics. But if she does, those medals won't be counted for the US, where Gu was born, raised, and trained. Gu will instead complete for host country China, which has never collected more than five gold medals in any Winter Olympics, the Washington Post reports. As Gu noted in an Instagram post in June 2019, at the age of 15, "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."

There already "are amazing role models for young girls" in the sport in the US, Gu told the Post late last year. "In China, with the burgeoning sport and a lot of people hearing about it for the first time ... I think it is a really good opportunity to spread the sport to younger girls." Gu—who was born to a Chinese mother and American father, and raised by her mother and maternal grandmother—is already famous in China as a Mandarin-speaking model, appearing on billboard advertisements and magazine covers. But the Olympics are expected to propel her to even greater stardom. "She's going to be as big as Yao Ming," China's first NBA star, predicts publicist Jeff Ruffolo, who's helping China organize the Games, per the Post. "It means a lot to China that she chose them."

At home, Gu's embrace of China isn't so celebrated amid a US diplomatic boycott of the Olympics tied to human rights violations in China's Xinjiang region. "For some it's hard not to see opportunism in it," freestyle skiing pioneer Kristi Leskinen tells ESPN, referring to "the recognition, sponsorship deals [and] resources" Gu has acquired through her decision. Yet "she almost certainly wouldn't be the athlete she is today without being born, raised, and trained in America." Interestingly, ESPN reports Gu has expressed interest in studying journalism at Stanford University. But if she has renounced her US citizenship as assumed—she won't say, though China doesn't recognize dual citizenship—"she will have to practice censorship for all of her life," says Chinese human rights activist Teng Biao. (Read more Olympians stories.)

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