Ski starlet who swapped USA for China puts gold medals before politics
At a Winter Olympics where Instagram is giving fans the chance to gain the inside track from athletes, Chinese-American sensation Eileen Gu's first post from the Beijing Games was telling.
Mildly sending up her usual glossy, high-fashion posts on a platform where the 18-year-old already has more than 245,000 followers, Gu haphazardly opened a box of "Olympic gear", goofishly modeling clothing provided by organizers before leaving it strewn across her sparse-looking room.
Gu might have been on a catwalk rather than in dorm-style accommodation this week, such is her pulling power with willing brands. The Chinese-American freestyle ski gold medal hopeful has cover girl looks, an intellect that has earned her a place at Stanford University and a back story crossing the political boundaries between two feuding superpowers.
One of her fellow models in the impromptu clip from her room was Jaime Melton, her head coach with the Chinese team at the Games. In 2019, Gu switched from Team USA at the age of 15.
"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 promote the sport I love," she said at the time, making a brave move that has earned a mixed reception including criticism and disappointment from some former athletes.
Even in the context of a Games which is being diplomatically boycotted by US president Joe Biden's administration and several other countries, few of the adoring fans in the comments section of Gu's hugely popular posts seem to care about any implications of her decision.
There is scant reference to the switch in a video promoted by one of her sponsors that pitches Gu as 'The Teenager That Will Change The Sport of Skiing Forever'.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Gu has an American father, a grandfather from Shanghai and a grandmother from Nanjing. She speaks fluent Mandarin to her Chinese mother, Yan, calling it a "secret language with mom".
“Yan is very pleasant but one of the most intense human beings I have ever met in my life," Mike Hanley, the head coach at a training facility for Olympians in Oregon told the New York Post.
"She smiles and tells you how great you are. But then you find out, after the fact, what the requests are. She loves her daughter and wants her daughter to get priority.
“[Gu] is the golden star for the country with the fastest-growing economy. She can be the Tony Hawk of winter sports in China.”
Hanley is not hyperbolizing. Existing deals with the likes of Cadillac and Bank of China exemplify Gu's appeal and ability to make millions of dollars in arguably the two largest commercial markets in the world, and Hanley's observation that athletes tend to switch from Team USA because they want more chance of making the cut could not be further from the truth for the current world champion in halfpipe and slopestyle.
There are inevitable accusations that Gu did not think mindfully enough about switching allegiance to a country under significant scrutiny for the alleged human rights violations that led the US and its fellow boycotters to take drastic action against the host country.
According to the Post, Gu has also theoretically changed her citizenship to China under the country's ban on competing under dual nationality.
There is a curious comparable story – and a more remarkable one – among Team USA's squad in Beijing: skier Kai Owens, the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup Rookie of the year in 2021, was abandoned by her birth parents in a town square in China before being adopted by a Colorado couple as a one-year-old.
In a physically punishing sport, both athletes are known for their fearlessness. Their success often depends on it, and Owens has even sustained a black eye in a slope fall days before the start of the Games.
Owens is also not afraid to explore her earliest roots. "Right now, I'm mostly focused on competing," the 17-year-old told TMZ as she waited for a train on her way to her base.
"But my family and I have plans to return to China, once Covid allows us to, to go back to the province I was born in, maybe do some birth parents research. I'm definitely hoping to go and do a cultural experience later on this year."