Feb 17, 2022 - Sports

Team China's foreign-born Olympians

Photo iIllustration of Team China’s Eileen Gu and Jake Chielos with stars.

Team China’s Jake Chielos and Eileen Gu. Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images, Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

Olympians must be citizens of the country they represent, and China doesn't allow for dual citizenship. So how are Americans with U.S. passports competing for Team China in Beijing?

State of play: The Chinese government appears to have loosened its strict nationality laws in an attempt to win medals and present a stronger image at the Olympics.

  • Eileen Gu has garnered most of the headlines, but she's just one of 30 foreign-born athletes on Team China. About half are North American men's hockey players, and all maintained citizenship, per USA Today.
  • Gu won't say whether she renounced her U.S. citizenship, and the Olympics website — which previously said she did — was changed on Feb. 10, adding to the mystery, Voice of America reports.
  • "I told China that I'll never give up my [U.S.] passport, and they said that's fine," said goalie Jeremy Smith, a Michigan native who's eligible to represent China due to a stint with Chinese club Kunlun Red Star.
  • Of note: Other countries have used naturalized foreign athletes for decades, but few if any of those have laws as strict as China’s.

Between the lines: China may have relaxed its citizenship rules, but it's still requiring a certain allegiance: Hockey players used Chinese names, and at least one player wasn't allowed to speak English in an interview.

What to watch: Susan Brownell, an American anthropologist and expert on Chinese sports, views this "politically sensitive matter" as a sort of tight-lipped experiment.

"After the Beijing Games, they're going to assess public opinion about having those athletes in the team. Was it good for Chinese sports, patriotism and the government's image, or was there a negative nationalist backlash?"
— Brownell, via Voice of America

The bottom line: China, hosting its first-ever Winter Olympics amid geopolitical turmoil, wants to put its best foot forward in Beijing. And it's willing to bend long-standing nationality laws to do so.

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