Olympian standout, Eileen Gu, clearly wants it all. The 18-year-old California native wants the Olympic medals, the modeling jobs, the rich sponsorships, and public adulation. But she also wants to be both an American and Chinese hero.
The perky, confident young woman, who goes by the name Eileen Gu in the US and Gu Ailing in China, was born in San Francisco, CA to a Chinese mother who was born in Beijing and emigrated to the United States.
Neither Gu nor her mother have disclosed any information about her father other than to say he is an American-born graduate of Harvard University. For some unexplained reason, American media have not verified that information, simply noting that there is no public record of her father. Even The New York Times has apparently accepted Gu declining to comment when asked if she knows anything about her father. It’s not clear why much of American media is treating her with such kid gloves.
In June 2019, when she was a 15-year-old child, Gu announced that she would switch country affiliations and compete for China in the Beijing Games. “This was an incredibly tough decision for me to make,” Gu wrote on Instagram, “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. Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations.”
But had she given up her American citizenship?
In February 2021, Forbes reported that Gu had announced on Instagram that she had become a naturalized Chinese citizen and planned to compete for China in the 2022 Beijing Games. But that was incorrect. Gu had said only, “I have decided to compete for China in the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics.”
The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to hold passports for the countries they represent, and China says it does not accept dual citizenship.
” …state media have previously reported that the 18-year-old renounced her U.S. citizenship after she became a Chinese national at the age of 15,” Reuters reported. But Gu herself has repeatedly dodged questions on her citizenship. And so far, she’s gotten away with it.
“She tends to avoid questions of geopolitics in interviews,” the New York Times reported earlier this month. “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” Gu has said.
“Nobody can deny I’m American, nobody can deny I’m Chinese,” Gu was quoted in the South China Morning Post.
In December 2021, when the media asked Gu about China during a slope-side interview in Colorado, her sports agent, Tom Yaps, tried to end the interview. “I’ll pass,” Gu said. “There’s no need to be divisive.”
ESPN reported on Feb. 1, 2022 that after The Wall Street Journal inquired about a story on Red Bull’s website that mentioned Gu had indeed given up her U.S. passport, the passage disappeared from the story without explanation.
Conjecture on her citizenship status arose when she registered for the US Presidential Scholars Program in 2021. Applicants are required to be US citizens or legal permanent U.S. residents to be eligible for the program. Gu did not, however, get into the program.
Gu will also face questions when she registers for Stanford, where she has been admitted. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires that international students have F-1 or J-1 visas.
Wherever the citizenship issue settles, Gu has already felt the sting of some Americans who see her as abandoning the US for personal gain.
And if China continues to treat Gu as one of their own, there may be ramifications if she falters down the road that she likely did not consider at the tender age of 15. (It’s interesting that the media has not paid much attention to the fact that Gu made her decision at such a young age, in contrast to the media attention given to concerns about all the pressure put on Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian phenom who was allowed to compete even after disclosure that she tested positive in December for trimetazidine, a drug that boosts blood flow to the heart.)
Figure skater Zhu Yi knows how things can turn. A U.S. born athlete with Chinese parents who is competing at the Olympics for China, Zhu Yi came under blistering attack in China when she crashed into a wall during a team event and was blamed for pushing her team into fifth place.
“There’s no next time,” a Weibo user, posted under a video of Zhu crying at the end of her performance. “How shameful.” The comment was liked more than 45,000 times.
“Go back to America,” read another comment accompanied by a US flag emoji.
Gu may also face Chinese criticism if she continues her outspoken support for girls and women in a country where gender roles are much more rigid and feminist activism is discouraged.
She has racked up an impressive number of sponsorships deals with Chinese companies, including Bank of China, China Mobile, Luckin’ Coffee, that are said to be worth millions. She has also become a highly bankable model in China and globally. In China, she’s been on the cover of Chinese editions of GQ and Elle. And as guest editor of Vogue China’s Gen-Z-focused bimonthly issue, Vogue+.
But Chinese sponsors, like American corporations, can be fickle and gun shy in the face of controversy. And controversy can come out of nowhere in Xi Jinping’s China.