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‘Beautiful’ Globalism: Eileen Gu to Be US Olympic Ambassador After Competing for China in Beijing 2022

18-year-old gold medallist gained fame in China, but has stirred controversy with her statements downplaying communist repression.
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: June 9, 2022
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Eileen Gu (L) speaks onstage at the TIME100 Summit 2022 at Jazz at Lincoln Center on June 7, 2022 in New York City. (Image: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME)

Speaking with TIME in New York, skiing champion Eileen Gu, who was born in the U.S. but competed for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, announced June 7 that she would represent the American bid to host the 2030 or 2034 Winter Olympics.

Gu described the role as a “beautiful example of globalism” and spoke “the capacity that we can use skiing and we can use sport and we can use winter sport to connect people” in  her interview with TIME’s Sean Gregory. 

Salt lake City, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, is also the U.S. candidate for the 2030/2034 bid. 

“Salt Lake specifically wants to become a global destination for athletes everywhere to come train there and they want to incorporate 15 new countries into the Winter Olympics,” she said. “I think that’s something that’s really beautiful and I’ve always stood for that and so I’m really honored to be a part of the whole thing.”

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Sean Gregory and Eileen Gu attend the TIME100 Summit 2022 at Jazz at Lincoln Center on June 7, 2022 in New York City. (Image: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for TIME)

Gu became a celebrity sensation as she won two gold medals and a silver in big air and halfpipe and slopestyle, respectively, for China.

But the 18-year-old model, who is of mixed Chinese and white ancestry and hails from San Francisco, drew criticism for her decision to compete for the communist PRC, as well as her sidestepping of politically sensitive topics. 

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While Gu has said she intends to become “a means through which people in China and the United States can enhance their communication, understanding and friendship,” many have doubted her intentions, given the vast human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — and Gu’s silence on the matter. 

Gu supports leftist “social justice” causes in the U.S., including Black Lives Matter and feminism, but has said “there’s no need to be divisive” when confronted by questions about the mass internment of China’s ethnic minorities and efforts to destroy their cultures by the CCP.  

I think everything I do, it’s all about inclusivity. And it’s all about making everybody feel as connected as possible,” she told the New York Times in an interview this February. 

Ailing Eileen Gu is on the podium after winning silver during the Women's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Slopestyle Final of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
Ailing Eileen Gu is on the podium after winning silver during the Women’s Freestyle Skiing Freeski Slopestyle Final of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Image: Ian MacNicol via Getty Images)

“It is difficult to believe Gu could possibly be ignorant of China’s atrocities. Her coaches invariably describe her as well-read and highly intelligent,” a Breitbart opinion piece by John Hayward notes. 

“Is that cool now, to choose to represent a totalitarian police state over America?” political commentator and comedian Bill Maher asked rhetorically in a Feb. 18 show. “By choosing Team China, Eileen Gu became a living symbol of China’s triumph over the West.” 

Burning bridges? 

Gu’s reception in mainland China from both the regime and the public was overwhelmingly positive, with netizens complimenting her fluent Mandarin in addition to her sports prowess (most of the foriegn athletes recruited to compete for China cannot speak Chinese). 

Her 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, called Gu Ailing in Chinese and dubbed the “snow princess.”

“Dad with Harvard, mom with Peking University and Stanford, grandmother an athlete, she herself beautiful and stylish,” one post that was shared 115,000 times around the time of the 2022 Olympics reads. 

The Chinese regime was straightforward about its expectations for Gu and her team. “Score greater glory for the Party and the people,” a Feb. 8 letter from the Chinese Winter Sports Administrative Center urged them. 

But others in China and elsewhere have raised questions about Gu’s nationality, specifically whether she — a PRC citizen — gave up her American citizenship as required by Chinese law.

As early as February, observers started to see fading enthusiasm for Gu Ailing among PRC state voices. 

As a Feb. 18 commentary piece published by the Washington Post notes, Gu did not know what she wanted to do after her Chinese Olympic wins, and that this uncertainty could be damaging in the nationalistic environment fostered by the Communist Party. 

“Influential commentators in China are starting to question whether the young athlete who lives, grew up and will soon attend college in the United States will always put China first,” the Post commentary said at the time. 

In March, soon after the Beijing Olympics, Gu returned to the United States

On Tuesday, June 7, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic bid committee Tom Kelly confirmed that Gu was an “athlete representative” in remarks made to AP.  “She is working with us,” Kelly said, “but we haven’t chosen her exact title.”