Last name: Eileen Gu
Native country: USA… but it’s complicated
Famous for: freestyle skiing, change of allegiance, wanting to have it both ways
Why she might be a jerk: Eileen Gu is arguably the best freestyle skier in the world. Born and raised in San Francisco to a Chinese mother and an American father, she began competing internationally in 2018 while still in high school. Since then, the 18-year-old has dominated big air, halfpipe and slopestyle events, and is favorite to win several individual gold medals at the Beijing Games. Does all of this make her an idiot? No! On the contrary, it’s great news that a young American is about to bring home a bucket of gold for good old Uncle Sam. [brief pause while I pick up a pair of miniature American flags and wave them with love and admiration] UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES!
Wait, what is it? Eileen Gu will be skiing during China at the Winter Games? Will those gold medals she’s about to win bring glory to good old Uncle Xi? She chose to compete for the country that has suppressed democracy in Hong Kong and oppressed the country’s Uyghur minority? [brief pause while I pick up a pair of miniature American flags and wave them with anger and dismay] UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES!
Let’s step back a few years to make sense of this potentially jerky decision. After competing for the United States in the 2018-19 World Cup season, Gu announced that she will now represent China. “The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mother was born, during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics is a unique opportunity to help promote the sport I love,” he said. -she writes on Instagram. “Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication and forge friendships between nations.”
It’s good! Who doesn’t like communication, friendship and common understanding? Chinese President Xi Jinping, for starters. Long before 2019, the Chinese leader presided over a mass surveillance state and subjected Uyghurs in Xinjiang to what the United States and other international observers have called genocide. The routine of peace, love and understanding falls flat when performed in the name of a serial human rights abuser who is determined to expose his transgressions in front of the world. Gu might be dead serious when she says she wants to use her fame to bridge the gaps. But did she really need to ski under the flag of an autocratic regime to do so?
Gu’s choice seems even more jerky when you realize it wasn’t made out of necessity. It is not unprecedented for American athletes to compete for other countries. But athletes who do so usually wouldn’t have made Team USA or competed in lesser-known events. Thus an American skier of Irish origin named “Bubba” becomes the co-flag bearer of Ireland. It’s a symbiotic process: without expatriate athletes, many countries would not Winter Olympic delegations; without these countries hosting them, many athletes would not go to the Olympic Games.
Eileen Gu does not fit into this category. In 2019, when she made the switch, she was already a rising star and becoming a dominant force in her sport. She was pretty much a shoo-in to make Team USA in 2022, a fact she surely would have known, just as surely as she would have known of China’s human rights record. . In light of all of this, choosing China over the United States — which has its problems, of course, but is still a true democracy — is a pretty jerky decision.
The mechanics of how Gu switched allegiances aren’t entirely clear. Yahoo News reported a now-deleted passage on her Red Bull Athlete Profile that explained how, at age 15, she “decided to give up her US passport and naturalize as a Chinese citizen in order to compete for China at Beijing – because Chinese law does not”. t recognize dual nationality. Gu certainly didn’t give up on America: She got accepted to Stanford and put off her admission for a year. His favorite line when asked his identity: “In the United States, I am American and when I am in China, I am Chinese.”
This neutrality seems motivated in large part by the desire to protect its important commercial interests. The New York Times noted this week that Gu, who works as a model when she’s not on the runways, has endorsement deals with “a slew of Chinese companies” and appeared on the cover of Chinese editions. from Elle, Marie Claire, and Vogue. “There’s no need to sow discord,” she told The Times, explaining her decision to “move on” to answer questions about China. “I think everything I do is about inclusivity. And it’s about making everyone feel as connected as possible.
Why she might not be a jerk: Gu was 15 when she called to represent China, and she is still just a teenager. It’s impressive that she can hit a double cork 1440. But her excellence on the slopes doesn’t mean she should be held to the same level as a mature adult. And, it must be said, there are plenty of adults in sports and in every other area of American society who have prioritized commerce over morality in their dealings with China.
His age also raises questions about the extent to which this decision was his alone. We don’t know what kind of advice she received, what sort of pressure she was under, and if it was in fact someone else’s choice that she followed and can’t take back.
Finally, it should be noted again that this kind of allegiance switching happens all the time, and not always with low profile athletes. Becky Hammon received a ton of flak for representing Russia at the 2008 Games, a choice she made after not securing a spot on the U.S. basketball roster for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. “It’s basketball, it’s not the Cold War,” Hammon said, a statement that was truer then than it is now.
The stakes seem higher this time, as Eileen Gu will be one of the faces of the Olympics expressly designed as Chinese propaganda. Even if the skiers do not have much international influence, the Xi regime will surely derive all possible geopolitical victories from the success of the Chinese-Americans in Beijing.
Shake Note: As a reminder, we grade all of our potential jerks on style, technical merit, and execution. I’ll give Eileen Gu 3 out of 3 points for style because her campaigns for brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Fendi are actually pretty well done. 1 out of 3 on technical merit, as her heel turn would have been much more shocking had she done it in the middle of a World Cup race, ripping off her USA uniform to reveal Chinese clothing underneath. 1.5 out of 3 for execution, because “I know you are, but what am I?” would be a much jerkier answer to any questions about whether she’s still a US citizen. And 1 out of 1 points in the category “Has she united people and fostered a common understanding (about her own potential shake-up)?” 6.5 points out of 10 for Eileen Gu. Following!