‘Half-and-half’ unites or divides. At least, that seems to be the case for Eileen Gu, or Gu Ailing, the double Olympic gold medallist born in California to a Chinese mother, whose goal of ‘using winter sport to connect people’ has often come up against the challenges of divisive geopolitics.
Gu shot to fame at this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, not just for becoming the youngest Olympic champion in freestyle skiing at 18 years-old, but also for the controversy surrounding her choice to represent China at the Olympics, despite having been born and raised in the US.
At a time of heightened Sino-US tensions, being half-Chinese and half-American in itself might be expected to lead to an identity struggle without having to factor into the mix an athlete’s limitation of being able to represent only one national team. Gu has fielded many a touchy question on her dual nationality, mixed-race heritage and what many Americans see as a betrayal of her country. But she earned the adoration and support of her Chinese compatriots in February after she won two gold medals and a silver for China in freestyle skiing.
Then on June 8 at the TIME 100 Summit, Gu announced her appointment as an ambassador for the US bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. She described her role as a “beautiful example of globalism”.
“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. I think that’s something that’s really beautiful and I’ve always stood for that and so I’m really honoured to be a part of the whole thing,” proclaimed Gu.
Under a Sina Weibo hashtag, over 220 million Chinese netizens commented on Gu’s decision, with the majority showing support for their ‘Frog Princess’ (a nickname based on her freestyle skiing), praising her influence and global-mindedness.
“Gu Ailing is half-Chinese and half-American. We do not expect her to be hostile to China, nor do we expect her to be hostile to the United States. She strengthens the friendship between the two countries through her own efforts, and we should support her,” wrote one weibo user.
Another fan commented that “it is rare to have such an excellent woman with international characteristics”.
However, Gu’s decision also sparked bitterness among more nationalistic netizens, with some questioning her intentions to continue representing China in the future. Other netizens criticised her for ‘eating on both sides’ to gain the most benefit.
“The gold medals were only loaned to us,” admonished one blogger, suggesting that Gu was returning to her American roots and turning her back on China.
For some the debate centred on more financial and materialistic objections. “I don’t care which country she admits she’s from, as long as she doesn’t come to China to make money,” was one disenchanted remark.
It is not, however, out of the ordinary for athletes to support other countries’ campaigns to host sporting events such as the Olympics. Previous Chinese athletes to do so include diver Gao Min, who advocated the Olympic bid from New York in 2005; snooker star Ding Junhui, who was ambassador for London’s bid, also in 2005; and figure skater Chen Lui, who was an ambassador for Russia’s Sochi Olympic bid in 2007. Many netizens have tried to remind Gu’s critics of these precedents.
As China does not allow dual citizenship, Gu has been vague in response to questions about her US citizenship, and it is unclear if she has renounced her American passport.
What she does make abundantly clear is that her motive for any action, controversial or otherwise, is always to inspire young girls in China and other parts of the world where “free skiing wasn’t visible before and now it is. And that’s the bottom line”.
With more mixed-race athletes emerging at international level, nationality questions have begun to become more of a source of headlines. When British-Romanian-Chinese tennis star Emma Raducanu won the US Open last September, she triumphed under the British flag. This begs the question: with the geopolitical situation becoming more fractious, how will mixed-race athletes like Gu and Raducanu balance their loyalties, especially as Chinese commercial opportunities become ever more enticing?
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