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US-born Skier Eileen Gu Competes for Beijing, Wins Gold Medal

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: February 9, 2022
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Ailing Eileen Gu of Team China reacts after their run during the Women's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Qualification on Day 3 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 07, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Image: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

California native outspoken on progressive issues, but silent on human rights violations in Communist China

Another American-born athlete is making headlines after deciding to compete for the People’s Republic of China in the Winter Olympics. 

Freestyle skier Eileen Gu won her first gold medal in the big air competition on Feb. 8, garnering much praise across social media and with some users even celebrating her as a hero. 

Many, however, have questioned the 18-year-old’s decision to compete on behalf of a regime that even today is widely condemned for its crushing brutality against political dissidents, religious believers, and ordinary Chinese citizens. 

According to Chinese state-run media, the country’s largest social networking platform Sina Weibo, found its servers temporarily overloaded after millions of users took to the Internet to sing their praises for the young athlete. Of the top 10 trending topics on the site, five were dedicated to adoration for the San Francisco native. 

Gu was born in California to an American father and Chinese mother, who raised her as a single parent. She is also a model and has featured on various billboards and even the cover of Chinese Vogue after she decided to compete for the PRC.

It’s unclear if Gu gave up her U.S. citizenship to compete in the 2022 Winter Games. According to Chinese law, a PRC national cannot hold dual citizenship, though this is often ignored by both the authorities and de facto dual citizens. Gu herself has dodged the issue when it’s brought up in interviews. 

‘Returned’ to China

Gu managed to land a double cork 1620 — a move in which skiers spin four and a half times while rotating twice off-axis while 20-some feet in the air. After her win, Gu told reporters that it was the “happiest moment, day, whatever – of my life,” according to the Olympics website.

BEIJING, CHINA – FEBRUARY 08: Eileen Gu of Team China reacts after the last run during the Women’s Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 4 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 08, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

“It’s very exciting. She’s of Chinese origin and has returned to China. I feel so proud of her,” said Beijing resident Jiang Yu on Weibo. 

The positive responses to Gu’s victory came in stark contrast to the reception received by another American-born athlete competing for China. 

Figure skater Zhu Yi came under attack on social media after she fell twice during the women’s free program, before taking another fall and crashing into a wall during her free-skating routine. 

Zhu finished last in the short program and knocked China from third to fifth place in the competition. The figure skating segment went on to be won by the Russian team, with the U.S. taking silver and Japan bronze.

The 19-year-old athlete, who was born in Los Angeles to Chinese parents and won a U.S. national title in 2018, had changed her name from Beverly Zhu to Zhu Yi in order to compete for China but faced much criticism for not being able to speak Chinese fluently. 

“There’s no next time,” wrote one Weibo user, under a video of Zhu crying at the end of her performance. “How shameful.” The comment was liked more than 45,000 times.

“Go back to America,” read another comment accompanied by a U.S. flag emoji.

‘Score greater glory for the Party’

While widely showcased as a winner for China, Eileen Gu has stirred controversy in her homeland, with many criticizing her decision to compete for Beijing despite the vast human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Gu’s silence on the CCP’s abuses contrasts with her outspokenness on progressive causes in the U.S., such as gender issues and Black Lives Matter. 

The New York Times observed that Gu and her mother avoid all subjects that could displease Beijing. When human rights in China were mentioned during an interview with her in Colorado last December, she became visibly uncomfortable and ended the exchange by saying that the subject was “divisive.” 

“There’s no need to be divisive. I think everything I do, it’s all about inclusivity. And it’s all about making everybody feel as connected as possible,” she said at the time.

A Feb. 8 letter from China’s Winter Sports Administrative Center congratulated Gu and her teammates for China’s first gold on snow, saying that their “future is bright.” 

“Score greater glory for the Party and the people,” the letter reads. 

Leo Timm contributed to this report