China's Eileen Gu Enrages Nationalists by Taking U.S. Olympics Role

Two competing hashtags about Eileen Gu are trending on Weibo, China's main social media website, after the ski star said she didn't regret representing her mother's homeland at the recent Winter Olympic Games—and then announced an ambassadorial role as part of a United States Olympic bid.

The California-born athlete, also known in China as Gu Ailing, became China's poster child when she took home two golds and one silver in freestyle skiing at the Beijing Games in February. Her sporting success was widely celebrated by the Chinese public and was significant for the country's ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), too.

Speaking at the Time 100 gala on Tuesday, Gu said she chose to represent China "to inspire young girls" in a country where winter sports are only just taking off. "No, I don't have any regrets," she told the magazine's Sean Gregory in New York.

"I am actually an ambassador for the Salt Lake City 2030 Olympic bid," Gu said when asked about the prospect of competing for Team USA in the future. "I think that's this beautiful example of globalism, and of the capacity that we can use skiing, we can use sport and we can use winter sport to connect people."

Eileen Gu Divides Opinion As Olympic Envoy
Olympic gold medalist Eileen Gu attends the TIME100 Summit 2022 in New York on June 7, 2022. At the event, Gu, who represented Team China at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, said she would be serving as an ambassador for Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid. Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME

On Weibo, a site that boasted more than 570 million active monthly users in 2021, Gu's comments went viral. One hashtag—"Gu Ailing has never regretted representing China"—was read 120 million times in six hours since Wednesday morning local time, according to the website's statistics.

Another—"Gu Ailing to serve as ambassador for U.S. Olympic bid"—was read 300 million times over the same period, the data showed.

The online engagement showed that, if nothing else, Gu's decision to become a Salt Lake City envoy has divided opinion, her every move already being scrutinized under the lens of wider geopolitical friction between Washington and Beijing.

Tom Kelly, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake City bid committee said that Gu would act as an "athlete representative," but the "exact title" of her role had yet to be decided.

For nationalists in both countries, the controversy surrounding Gu goes beyond her 2019 decision to ski for Team China at the Winter Olympics earlier this year, a move she said was supported by her peers in the U.S.

Gu says she's American when she's stateside and Chinese when in China, but some don't find this idyllic coexistence easy to accept. The teenager is caught between two rival polities, both of which readily latch on to opportunities to question her loyalty.

At the games in Beijing, Gu told reporters she wasn't going to waste her time "trying to placate people who are uneducated." She has largely stayed out of politics.

Emblematic of the controversy is Gu's legal status. She's thought to have acquired Chinese citizenship sometime after 2019 to enable her to compete for China. However, the country doesn't recognize dual nationality, meaning she would have to had renounced her U.S. citizenship to become legally Chinese.

The Federal Register publishes a quarterly list of individuals who have "chosen to expatriate." Gu's name has not appeared on any of the lists to date, including the latest dated April 20.

Many in China are satisfied with the thought that Beijing wouldn't create a legal exemption just for Gu. But for Chinese nationalists, dual nationality, even if it were allowed, wouldn't be satisfactory.

Eileen Gu Divides Opinion As Olympic Envoy
Eileen Gu of Team China competes during the Women's Freeski Halfpipe event in Zhangjiakou, China on February 18, 2022. Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

During the recent Winter Games, prominent commentators warned their fellow citizens not to get too attached to Gu; where her allegiances truly lie would be clear after the competition, depending on where she chose to live, they said. Gu is expected to begin college at Stanford this fall.

In early April, at a gathering of athletes and CCP officials to celebrate China's achievements at the Olympics, President Xi Jinping mentioned Gu by name and referenced her love of Chinese pies—another moment that went viral online.

Two weeks later, as Shanghai went into a COVID lockdown and infections in Beijing began to tick up, Gu shared Instagram stories showing her and her family on a private jet out of the capital.

"I'd only recognize her Chinese bloodline if her father were Chinese. Being legally Chinese is something else; hyping her up as Chinese is meaningless. China has so many excellent homegrown athletes—why her?" wrote one Weibo commentator, in an apparent reference to Gu's American father.

"For two golds and one silver, we let her rake in 200 million [Chinese yuan ($30 million)] and quietly allowed dual citizenship. Now she's having her cake and eating it at both ends," another said.

In a Twitter thread reacting to Gu's announcement, China sports analyst Mark Dreyer said he believes she was "overcompensating for her decision to represent China in 2022."

"I'm all for people trying to build bridges—especially when it comes to the challenging US-China relationship—but you can't be 'all-in' on both sides. It doesn't sit right with either side," Dreyer said.

The International Olympic Committee is expected to announce the 2030 Winter Game's host in May 2023. Japan's Sapporo and Canada's Vancouver, along with Salt Lake, are bidding to hold the event. Salt Lake is also in with a chance to host the Games in 2034 if the city's first bid fails.