When freestyle skier Gu Ailing decided to drop out of the American team in favour of a new role representing China, she described it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help the sport she loved.
“Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations,” Gu added, only 15 at the time.
Critics in the land of her birth sniffed at the decision, however, ruminating that the reasons for Gu’s departure were more commercial.
The San Francisco-born skier went on to become the most high-profile of the competitors at the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year, winning two gold medals and a silver, as well as millions more yuan in endorsement deals after choosing to compete for China.
Liu Shaolin and his younger brother Liu Shaoang share a similarly cross-cultural background to Gu. Born in Budapest to a Chinese father and Hungarian mother, the duo were part of the Hungarian gold medal-winning team in the 5,000-metre speed skating relay at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. It was Hungary’s first ever short-track Olympic gold and Liu Shaoang went on to claim another one in the men’s 500-metre event in Beijing in February this year.
“We go [to China] every year, so it’s not new ground for us,” Shaoang told Chinese state television. “We love the food, we love the culture, we can speak the language, there’s nothing that can surprise us.”
“Hopefully, even if there are Chinese skaters, they will cheer for us the same way they’d be cheering for Chinese skaters. We love our Chinese fans,” he added.
All the same, the brothers are less well known in China than Gu, who enjoys superstar status.
Perhaps the skaters noticed some of her success as both have now chosen to follow Gu in switching national allegiances to China.
According to China Daily, another driving force in their choice to represent China was their longtime coach and mentor in the Hungarian national team, Zhang Jing.
Zhang skated for China at the 1994 Winter Olympics and recently decided to return to her homeland to serve as head coach of the Chinese national team.
The Hungarian National Skating Association (MOKSZ) confirmed this week that the Liu brothers had formally applied to switch their competitive status to Team China.
“After the Beijing Olympics, the brothers indicated that they would like to continue to prepare under the guidance of [Lina] Zhang Jing,” the association said in a statement translated by China Daily.
“Unfortunately, Lina, at her request, had to terminate her contract, given that she had received an offer that was hard to turn down from the federation of her home country, China, for the position of head coach of the Chinese speed skating team,” the statement added.
Gu – who is known as Eileen in America – was the fourth-highest paid female athlete last year, earning more than $23 million, reckons news website Sportico.
Sohu Sport thinks that the Liu brothers could emulate some of Gu’s commercial success with advertisers, especially if they win more golds at major international events.
But the Liu brothers will now have to wait to represent their naturalised country for at least a year, however – although that would make them eligible to compete for China at the Winter Olympics in Milan in 2026.
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