Olympic Shredder Eileen Gu: Is She Making or Breaking The US-China Rivalry?

By Odelia Tham

Photo by REUTERS / Tyrone Siu

The exceptional three-time gold and silver medallist Eileen Gu’s Olympic glory is being clouded with citizenship debate fuelled by the US-China Rivalry. 

The American-born, 18-year-old freestyle ski athlete chose to represent her mother’s birth country, China, in this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics by renouncing her US citizenship – a decision that has catapulted widespread controversy amidst the current politically charged climate surrounding US-China relations. 

Eileen Gu: Jack Of All Trades

The world watches on as Gu makes her mark in the sporting world, having been crowned the youngest freeski Olympic gold medallist in history, the first action-sport athlete to win three medals at the same Olympics and the first Olympic freeski medallist in Chinese history

Aside from breaking records and boundaries in her first Olympics, she is also a stellar straight ‘A’ student, an international modelling contract and sponsorships worth roughly $22 million USD a year. 

This young jack-of-all-trades is also nicknamed China’s beloved ‘Snow Princess’ and stands to be a global icon for women’s sports, shaping the stage from freeskiing for years to come. 

The Controversy

Her success is clouded with questions about her identity. This internationally recognised figure is caught up in a propaganda battle and is called to pick sides in a war she never agreed to be in.

Although born and raised in San Francisco, Gu spent a great portion of her time in China with close connections to her grandparents in Beijing. She is fluent in both languages and proudly calls both nations her home. 

“When I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” she told the Olympic Channel. “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American. Both continue to be supportive of me because they understand my mission is to use sport as a force for unity”.

However, the media continues to entertain the debate on who she really is, as if she cannot be both Chinese and American. 

The people in China are celebrating her as the nation’s pride, while the conservatives in United States call her ungrateful for revoking her ‘birthright’. 

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was amongst the many that made harrowing remarks regarding Gu’s decision. 

“When you choose to put the American flag on, you're standing for freedom. When you choose to put the Chinese flag on, you're standing for human rights abuses. There is no in-between,” said Haley.

The US Relationship with her Asian-American identity

The conflict around Gu’s choice ultimately reflects biases and misunderstandings in the United States about Asian American identity. A bias that is exaggerated when you’re in the spotlight on sport’s most prominent global stage. 

“I chose to ski for China because there’s this massive opportunity to spread the sport to people who haven’t even heard of it before. And honestly, I have met my goal. There are 300 million people on snow [in China], and to have even influenced a tiny fraction of that makes me immensely proud,” Gu wrote on a statement on her Instagram

“I am proud of my heritage and equally proud of my American upbringing. The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mum was born, during the 2022 Beijing Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love. Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations,” Gu wrote

Gu is amongst many other Asian Americans whose immigration roots are on display at the Beijing Olympics and in history. Heat circles the issue of athletes who have abandoned the country they were born and raised in to represent another.

U.S. figure skating gold medallist Nathan Chen was born in Utah to immigrants from China. Snowboarder Chloe Kim, who won her second gold for the U.S. in the women’s halfpipe, was born in California to Korean immigrants.

Tensions continue to rise in US-China ties as the Biden administration coins it “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” according to the New York Times.

The U.S. and China, as major trade and business partners, have garnered a complex rivalry. Power plays are in action as the two nations battle for influence beyond their borders, compete in technology and contest for military dominance on land, in space and in the cyberworld. 

It was only in December 2021 that the White House announced a diplomatic boycott that restricted American officials from attending the Winter Olympics. 

Opinion: Who Cares? 

American or Chinese, model or Olympian, she is an awe-inspiring figure breaking barriers and shaping history. Why can’t she be both?

The world of global sports politics wants her to pick a side, but as Gu says herself, 

"I’m not trying to keep anyone happy. I’m an 18-year-old girl out here living my best life.” 

Her story is a testament to the benefits, the value, the opportunities that come from an interconnected world driven by sports. She is Eileen Gu. No more, no less.