Name: Eileen Gu
Home country: USA … but it’s complicated
Known for: freestyle skiing, allegiance-switching, wanting to have it both ways
Why she might be a jerk: Eileen Gu is arguably the best female freestyle skier in the world. Born and raised in San Francisco to a Chinese mother and an American father, she began competing internationally in 2018, while still in high school. Since then, the now 18-year-old has dominated in big air, halfpipe, and slopestyle events, and is favored to take multiple individual golds at the Beijing Games. Does any of this make her a jerk? No! To the contrary, it’s great news that a young American is poised to bring home a bucketful of gold for good ol’ Uncle Sam. [brief pause while I pick up a pair of miniature American flags and wave them with love and admiration] USA! USA! USA!
Wait, what’s that? Eileen Gu will be skiiing for China at the Winter Games? Those golds she’s poised to win will redound to the glory of good ol’ Uncle Xi? She chose to compete for the country that has clamped down on democracy in Hong Kong and oppressed the nation’s Uyghur minority? [brief pause while I pick up a pair of miniature American flags and wave them with anger and dismay] USA! USA! USA!
Let’s rewind a couple years to make sense of this potentially jerky decision. After having competed for the United States during the 2018-2019 World Cup season, Gu announced that she would henceforth be representing China. “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,” she wrote on Instagram. “Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations.”
That’s nice! Who doesn’t love communication, friendship, and common understanding? Chinese president Xi Jinping, for one. Since well before 2019, China’s leader has presided over a massive surveillance state and has subjected the Uyghurs in Xinjiang to what the United States and other international observers have deemed a genocide. The peace, love, and understanding routine falls flat when performed on behalf of a serial human rights abuser who’s determined to flaunt his transgressions in front of the entire world. Gu might be completely earnest when she says she wants to use her celebrity to bridge differences. But did she really need to ski under the flag of an autocratic regime to do so?
Gu’s choice seems even jerkier when you realize it wasn’t made out of necessity. It is not unprecedented for American athletes to compete for other countries. But the athletes who do so typically would not have made the U.S. team, or compete in lesser-known events . This is how an Irish-born American skier named “Bubba” gets to be Ireland’s co-flagbearer. It’s a symbiotic process: Without expatriate athletes, a lot of countries wouldn’t field Winter Olympics delegations; without these countries welcoming them in, a lot of athletes wouldn’t be going to the Olympics.
Eileen Gu doesn’t fit into that rubric. In 2019, when she made the switch, she was already a rising star, and growing into a dominant force in her sport. She was pretty much a shoo-in to make Team USA in 2022, a fact she surely would have known, just as surely as she would have known about China’s human rights record. In light of all this, to choose China over the U.S.—which has its problems, sure, but is still an actual democracy—is a pretty jerky move.
The mechanics of how Gu switched allegiances aren’t entirely clear. Yahoo News flagged a now-deleted passage on her Red Bull athlete profile that explained how, at 15, she “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.” Gu certainly hasn’t ditched America: She’s been accepted to Stanford, and has deferred admission for a year. Her go-to line when asked about her identity: “In the U.S., I’m American and when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”
That neutrality appears motivated in large part by a desire to protect her sizeable commercial interests. The New York Times noted this week that Gu, who works as a model when she’s not on the slopes, has sponsorship deals with “a slew of Chinese companies” and has been featured on the cover of the Chinese editions of Elle, Marie Claire, and Vogue. “There’s no need to be divisive,” she told the Times, explaining her decision to “pass” on answering questions about China. “I think everything I do, it’s all about inclusivity. And it’s all about making everybody feel as connected as possible.”
Why she might not be a jerk: Gu was 15 years old when she made the call to represent China, and she’s still just a teenager. It’s impressive that she can stomp a double cork 1440. But her excellence on the slopes doesn’t mean she should be held to the same standard as a mature adult. And, it should be said, there are a whole lot of grown-ups in sports and every other realm of American society who’ve prioritized commerce over morality in their relationships with China.
Her age also raises questions about the extent to which this decision was hers alone. We don’t know what sort of advice she got, what sort of pressure she was under, and whether this was actually someone else’s choice that she went along with and now can’t take back.
Finally, it’s worth noting again that this sort of allegiance-switching happens all the time, and not always with low-profile athletes. Becky Hammon got a ton of flak for representing Russia during the 2008 Games, a choice she made after not getting a spot on the U.S. basketball roster for the Beijing Summer Olympics. “This is basketball, it isn’t the Cold War,” Hammon said, a statement that was truer then than it is now.
The stakes do feel higher this time, because Eileen Gu will be one of the faces of an Olympics expressly designed as Chinese propaganda. Even if skiers don’t hold all that much international clout, the Xi regime will surely wring whatever geopolitical victories they can out of the Chinese-American’s success in Beijing.
Jerk score: As a reminder, we score all of our potential jerks on style, technical merit, and execution. I’ll give Eileen Gu 3 out of 3 points for style, because her campaigns for brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Fendi are actually quite well done. 1 out of 3 for technical merit, because her heel turn would have been much more shocking if she would have done it in the middle of a World Cup run, ripping off her American uniform to reveal Chinese apparel underneath. 1.5 out of 3 for execution, because “I know you are, but what am I?” would be a much jerkier answer to any question about whether she’s still a U.S. citizen. And 1 out of 1 point in the category of “Did she unite people and promote common understanding (about her own potential jerkiness)?” 6.5 out of 10 points for Eileen Gu. Next!