Eileen Gu skis over national and political boundaries

Investigating Olympian Eileen Gu’s decision to represent China

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Kalyani Puthenpurayil

In 2020, Eileen Gu changed the country she was representing from the U.S. to China when she was 15.

By Sarah Liu and Kalyani Puthenpurayil

The announcement “Gold medalist and Olympic champion, People’s Republic of China!” drew cheers from the crowd as 18-year-old freestyle skier Ailing Eileen Gu stepped onto the podium to receive her second gold medal and third overall medal during the 2022 Winter Olympics.

An avid skier since she was young, Gu would spend her childhood skiing on the slopes of Lake Tahoe. Although she was born in San Francisco, Gu announced at 15 that she would be representing her mother’s native country China, quoting the strong ties she has to Chinese culture and her ability to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese.

As Gu is a U.S. native, her decision shocked both U.S. and Chinese citizens and Gu’s fame grew explosively. As her popularity continues to skyrocket, Gu tells interviewers that she hopes to expand youth sports culture in China and inspire more Chinese people to develop an appreciation for skiing.

“Sports are ingrained in youth culture in the U.S.,” Gu said during an interview with ESPN Asia. “Almost every American kid played some sport, at least one time in their childhood. I hope to inspire more of that to happen in China.”

Freshman Lily Jiang finds Gu inspirational, admiring Gu’s overall passion for her sport and supporting the athlete no matter which country she decides to compete for. As Jiang shares similar qualities with the Olympian, including being Chinese, being a skier and being “from the Bay Area,” she relates to the Olympian and “feels kind of a connection to her.”

Gu also claims to want to bridge relations between the two nations. During an Olympic press conference, Gu stated that sports can be used to bring people together, as sports “[don’t] have to be related to nationality” and don’t have to be “something that can be used to divide people.”

After she decided to represent China, Gu faced backlash from the public, especially people from the United States. Various social media users voiced their opinions on Gu’s choice to compete for another country.

Sophomore Olivia Ho believes that although Gu may intend to bring the two countries together, it may “not be possible considering the current state of perspectives that the two nations have of each other, such as the anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S.”

Alex Huang, a Chinese Cupertino resident, agrees that Gu choosing to compete for China may not bring together the countries. According to Chinese market research firm CBN Data, she has earned approximately 31.4 million U.S. dollars in 2021 from various Chinese sponsorships which she has faced backlash for.

“She actually is earning a lot of money [and] there is a big financial incentive for her to be in China,” Huang said. “If she really was being honest about that, she should have talked about it. And so [do I] completely believe the things that she says about bringing nations together? No, not really. But I believe that’s her prerogative to go do that.”

Along with modeling for brands in the U.S. such as Red Bull, Cadillac and Victoria’s Secret, she has become the face of major Chinese businesses such as China Mobile, Anta, Bank of China and JD.com. For Gu, her American and Chinese roots provide her the opportunity to represent brands in two of the world’s most lucrative markets.

Besides receiving financial benefits, Gu has been attacked for representing China but choosing to attend Stanford University in the United States this fall. However, Ho believes that there is no right or wrong country to represent.

“I think that she has the right to choose which country she chooses to support, however it’s important to be mindful of the implications of her competing for a specific country versus another,” Ho said. “And I don’t think there’s any moral superiority for competing for the United States versus China because neither are perfect countries.”

Huang adds that there is no need to focus solely on which country she is representing, but rather, people should watch how skillful she is instead.

“I mean, she’s only [an] 18 year old girl, so if she doesn’t want to talk about it, I can understand,” Huang said. “Because she’s there to compete in the Olympics. So why make that an issue for her? She should focus on the sport.”

Throughout this ordeal, Gu has garnered the attention of people on a global scale, whether they be newfound supporters or dislikers of her actions. But when asked repeatedly about her decision to represent China, Gu simply puts on a smile and focuses on the skiing aspect of her Olympic career.

I do corks in an icy, 22-foot, U-shaped snow structure,” Gu said. “That’s not political. It’s pushing the human limit and it’s connecting people.”

This story was originally published on El Estoque on March 2, 2022.