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Olympic Champion Eileen Gu, Applauded by Millions in China, Returns to the US After Winning Golds

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: March 15, 2022
Eileen Gu of Team China reacts after winning the Gold medal during the Women's Freestyle Freeski Halfpipe Final on Day 14 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Genting Snow Park on February 18, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Image: Ezra Shaw via Getty Images)

Three-time gold medalist Eileen Gu, who caused a stir by competing for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) instead of her native U.S. and received much applause across the Chinese internet and state media, has continued to attract attention for a different reason.

Gu, who was born in San Francisco to an American father and a Chinese mother, made headlines last month and garnered much praise as well as criticism after deciding to compete for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) instead of the U.S. – despite the Chinese regime’s long standing track record of human rights abuses

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the number of people who have since taken to ski slopes and skating rinks, inspired by Gu’s performance and the spectacle of medal-winning as seen in the Olympic Games, has far exceeded the government’s forecasts.

Gu attracted tens millions of Chinese fans for supposedly returning to her roots, while others criticized the 18-year-old’s comments downplaying or skirting around human rights abuses in the communist country.

Now, she has again made headlines for returning to the United States after her 15 minutes of fame. Gu returned to her hometown, San Francisco, and plans to attend Stanford University in the fall. 

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Complicated stardom for Gu in China

Up to 346 million people are taking part in winter sports, surpassing the 300 million target set by Chinese leader Xi Jinping seven years ago when Beijing handed in its bid to host the 2022 Olympic games.

According to a report by state-run Beijing Yuanhe Partners, at least 800 ski resorts are now operating in China and the booming market is predicted to snowball in value by 73 percent from last year to 1 trillion yuan (USD $158.3 billion) by 2025.

There is “growing enthusiasm for snow and ice [sports], buoyed by the Winter Olympics,” Fosun Tourism’s chairman Qian Jiannong said in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “The number of learners at our resorts gives me confidence, because the potential is huge.”

“The Winter Olympics was a trigger, and more importantly Chinese athletes’ achievements during the event will fuel growth in the market,” said Chen Xiao, CEO of Shanghai Yacheng Culture, a consultancy dealing with marketing and branding for foreign and local companies.

“Winter sport facilities and sportswear will see an investment spree.”

Even as Gu is embraced by a multitude of Chinese fans and showered with millions of dollars in endorsement deals, she could face a complicated road in China where political sensitivities are at an all-time high.

Gu has faced growing controversy for contradicting statements where she openly supports the Chinese regime but inadvertently sheds light on the plight faced by the country’s 1.4 billion citizens who lack basic liberties such as access to an uncensored Internet and the freedom of expression.

Now an Olympic champion after winning three medals in the Games’ freestyle ski, half-pipe and big air events, the young athlete has faced growing scrutiny after she nonchalantly said that anyone in China can download a virtual private network (VPN) to access the free internet. Her Weibo post was then censored and deleted by China’s tightly controlled Internet scrubs.

Gu’s first gold medal win for China was so heavily celebrated that according to state-run media, it temporarily overloaded the servers. Of the top 10 trending topics on Weibo, five were dedicated to adoration for the American athlete, where she was dubbed the “snow princess.”

On Feb. 8, Gu made a post on Instagram to announce her gold medal win at the Beijing Games. As social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are banned in China, many Chinese questioned why she, but not the general public, could access Instagram in mainland China.

“Anyone can download a VPN, it’s literally free on the App store,” Gu replied, according to a screenshot of the since-deleted Instagram post.  

Athletes competing at the Beijing Olympics were granted special access to websites that are normally banned by Chinese authorities — including Western social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. 

Uncertainties over Gu’s citizenship

Gu has also been the subject of controversy over whether she gave up her U.S. passport in exchange for a Chinese one in order to compete for the host nation. Though Chinese law does not recognize dual citizenship, it’s unclear which nationality Gu currently holds. Gu herself has also dodged questions in regards to her citizenship status when the issue is brought up in interviews. 

While speaking to reporters during the Winter Games last month, Gu said, “I’m not trying to solve political problems right now,” she said. “And I’m aware that I’m not able to do everything I want to do at this exact moment.”