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Skier Eileen Gu sparks uproar in China over U.S. 2030 Olympic bid involvement

Chinese-American freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who was lauded by Chinese fans for her patriotism after choosing to represent China at the 2022 Winter Olympics, has announced she will act as goodwill ambassador in support of Salt Lake City’s 2030 Olympics bid.

Gu, who was born in the United States, said she was just 15 when she decided to embrace her Chinese heritage and represent the host nation at the Olympics, taking gold in the big air and halfpipe events, and a silver medal in slopestyle.

Yet Gu, 18, has been unwilling so far to address the issue of patriotic allegiance head on, and has said she is American while in the U.S., and Chinese while in China.

China doesn’t permit dual citizenship, at least not officially, and Gu has never clarified which passport, or passports, she actually now holds. China’s state-controlled media lauded her haul of medals to the skies, but never probed the issue any further.

“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,” Gu told Time Magazine in a recent interview.

“I think that’s something that’s really beautiful and I’ve always stood for that and so I’m really honored to be a part of the whole thing,” she said, adding that it was a “beautiful example of globalism.”

However, Time referred to her as “China’s Eileen Gu,” saying this showed the global influence of a top-level Chinese athlete.

Gu’s involvement in the Salt Lake City bid comes at a time of heightened political tensions between Washington and Beijing.

In April, she attended an assembly of Chinese Olympians at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where she got a special mention from ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping, who ribbed her for her love of Chinese dumplings.

15 million views in China

U.S. Olympic bid spokesman Tom Kelly confirmed to the Associated Press on Tuesday that Gu participated in the bid as an “athlete representative.”

“She is working with us,” Kelly said, “but we haven’t chosen her exact title.”

He said Gu wouldn’t be traveling with the bid’s delegation to Switzerland to meet with International Olympics Committee (IOC) officials, but that U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn would be going.

The topic has blown up the Chinese internet, with more than 15 million views reported on the #EileenGu hashtag on China’s Weibo social media platform alone on Thursday.

“As a sports figure, Eileen Gu is often seen through a screen of commercial hype … but being the U.S. ambassador for the Olympic bid doesn’t mean much,” the @dibaofficialweibo account commented. “Those who scold her for it make themselves look stupid and ignorant.”

@CarShooter responded sarcastically to Gu’s comment in the Time Magazine interview that she had no regrets about representing China, commenting: “Ha ha Chinese athlete Eileen Gu, thank you, really!” adding a “Bye-bye” emoticon.

Former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, usually known for his hyper-nationalistic rhetoric, was unexpectedly supportive of Gu, however.

He said Gu had “defined her identity” by choosing to represent China in 2022, and had done nothing yet to suggest she was trying to change that.

User @SisterFei_talks_politics_and_economics took issue with Gu’s critics, who had slammed her as an “exquisite egoist.”

“I can’t understand the disdain and even anger of many people towards Eileen Gu,” the user wrote. “They think she is a person who uses her privilege to have her cake and eat it. I find these ideas ridiculous and narrow-minded.”

Nationality switching

Gu had never claimed to love China, but only to spend some of her time there. She had never tried to tap into any kind of nationalistic rhetoric to win favor, but had instead relied on her own talents and efforts to bring gold and silver medals for China, the user wrote.

“Do we need her more, or does she need us?” they asked.

Weibo user @zhongdongzongzanfeng said China should never have let Gu compete on its Olympic team. “I have nothing against her, but I am against nationality changes just to get more gold medals; gold medals won in this way are worthless,” the user wrote.

Sun Youkui, sports management lecturer at Towson University, said nationality switching is actually quite common among top athletes, and that Chinese athletes have previously served as ambassadors for foreign Olympic bids.

“Naturally, everyone is talking about the question of her nationality again because she just represented China in competition, and now she is helping the United States to bid for the Olympics,” Sun told RFA. “The focus is all on her.”

“But there have also been examples in the past of [bid teams] seeking out top or well-known international athletes to serve as ambassadors for an Olympic bid,” Sun said. “The fact that she isn’t an athlete from that country means nothing.”

“It’s to demonstrate the international reputation of Salt Lake City.”

Chinese diving star Gao Min has served as ambassador for New York’s Olympic bid, while Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo played the same role for South Korea, Ding Junhui for London and Chen Lu for Sochi.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.