China’s Freestyle Medal Hope Is American-born skier-model Eileen Gu

The glamour-girl-next-door image of Eileen Gu holding Lunar New Year treats illuminates bus stop ads throughout Beijing. 

If you didn’t see those, you can hear China’s medal hopeful narrating a commercial for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Mandarin. 

And on newsstands, the freestyle skier is the cover model of this month’s Vogue Chinese edition. 

Gu, China’s unofficial face of the Winter Olympics, is everywhere. And that omnipresence belies her origins in the United States, which raises questions about her citizenship as China does not allow dual citizenship. 

Born on September 3, 2003, in San Francisco, California, to an American father and a Chinese mother who emigrated from China, Gu started training in the U.S. at the age of 8 and began competing in major skiing events in 2018 as an American. 

On June 7, 2019, however, Gu announced her decision on Instagram to represent her mother’s homeland in the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

 “I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud of my American upbringings,” Gu wrote. “The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love.”

Some experts say the reason behind Gu’s decision may not be that simple. 

Besides her sports career, Gu is also a model who has appeared on the cover of Vogue Hong Kong and Vogue China. She has deals with luxury brands including Louis Vuitton and Tiffany. 

Lisa Pike Masteralexis, professor in the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told VOA Mandarin in an email, “Considering her goal of being a decorated Olympian, a role model, a fashion model, and with the growing market conditions in China, it appears to be a savvy move by Eileen Gu and her agency, IMG.” The agency represents top fashion industry names such as Alek Wek and Bella Hadid.

Susan Brownell, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis with expertise in Chinese sports and the Olympic Games, told VOA Mandarin during a virtual interview, “What’s interesting about her is that she does have a number of major sponsorships, and so it appears that representing China is actually appealing to those sponsors, which is a rather new development that you would have, you know, a Chinese American athlete who chose to represent China and was still appealing to sponsors.” 

IMG did not respond to a request for comments by VOA Mandarin. 

Gu’s decision to represent China stirred questions about her citizenship status. 

One of Gu’s main sponsors, Red Bull, used to have a message on its website that read: “At the age of 15, US-born Gu decided to give up her American passport and naturalize as a Chinese citizen in order to compete for China in Beijing – because Chinese law doesn’t recognize dual nationality.” 

After the Wall Street Journal attempted to confirm Gu’s citizenship status in January, Red Bull removed the message. 

VOA Mandarin messaged Gu and her sports agent but neither responded. 

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected VOA Mandarin’s request for comments. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and General Administration of Sports of China directed VOA Mandarin to the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC). But VOA Mandarin’s emails to the COC bounced back.

According to Rule 41 of the IOC Charter, “1. Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the NOC which is entering such competitor. 2. All matters relating to the determination of the country which a competitor may represent in the Olympic Games shall be resolved by the IOC Executive Board.”

Gu also needs to comply with International Ski Federation (FIS) and National Olympic Committee rules. The FIS lists her as a Chinese athlete.

“A skier must be licensed by their home country to represent that nation, so Eileen Gu must have officially changed her license. According to Chinese media reports she did this in 2019 when she was 15,” Masteralexis said. 

Although Masteralexis thinks Gu is following both the IOC and FIS rules, she said, “It has been reported in Chinese media going back 2-3 years that Eileen Gu was granted Chinese citizenship and China does not recognize dual citizenship. The US does recognize dual citizenship, so one does wonder if China has created an exception for Gu.” 

In an interview with ESPN in 2020, Gu said, “Since I was little, I’ve always said when I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”

According to Brownell, all the foreign-born athletes who are representing China at the Olympics have refused to answer questions about the status of their citizenship.

She said it is not unusual for athletes to represent countries other than their birth countries at major sports events.

An article she co-authored with Niko Besnier, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, points out that in the past few years, the U.S. offered fast-tracked citizenship for some athletes who were in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The article notes, “Because the program involves enlisting in the U.S. Army, athletes who were born in other countries do not have to comply with the normal five-year residency rule that is strictly upheld for all other immigrants seeking citizenship.” 

“The U.S. track and field squad going to Rio includes four Kenyan-born athletes who benefited from this program,” it says.

Heidi Grappendorf, associate professor of sport management at Western Carolina University, says seeking out athletes to compete for a country other than their birth country is against the Olympics’ true meaning and needs to be addressed by the IOC. 

“When countries try to poach athletes from other countries to compete for them to make themselves look better, there certainly appears to be a violation of the Olympic spirit,” she said. 

 

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