Feb 10, 2022 - Sports

Eileen Gu: A tale of two nations

Eileen Gu poses with her gold medal.
Eileen Gu after winning gold. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Eileen Gu, the Chinese American freestyle skier who won big air gold for China this week, has become one of Beijing 2022's key figures.

Why it matters: Olympians choosing one country over another is nothing new, but they're not typically the face of the host nation — or at the center of a rift between the world's two biggest economies.

The backdrop: Gu, 18, was born in San Francisco to an American father and Chinese mother, who raised her as a single mom and taught her to ski at nearby Lake Tahoe.

  • She graduated from San Francisco University High School and will attend Stanford this fall. She's also a model with nearly a million Instagram followers and countless endorsement deals.
  • In 2019, she announced she'd be competing for China. Now, she's so popular in her mother's native country that her gold medal win caused Chinese social media platform Weibo to crash.

The big picture: Gu presents a very 21st-century question: Can a skier be the face of China's Olympics and remain just an athlete, or does the underlying geopolitical tension make sticking to sports impossible?

  • China doesn't allow for dual citizenship, so Gu either forfeited her U.S. passport or cut a deal to keep it (she won't say). American-born figure skater Zhu Yi gave hers up to compete for China.
  • "I don't get it. And never will," tweeted former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. "I think it is wrong for an American to compete for China."

What she's saying: "When I'm in the U.S., I'm American, but when I'm in China, I'm Chinese," Gu has often said.

  • "I'm not trying to keep anyone happy," she added Monday. "I'm an 18-year-old girl, out here living my best life."
  • "I do corks in an icy, 22-foot, U-shaped snow structure," Gu told NYT. "That's not political. It's ... connecting people."

What's next: Gu's gold medal on Monday matched China's entire haul from 2018, and she could win more hardware in slopestyle and halfpipe.

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