Why Winter Olympic Athletes Like Eileen Gu Are Getting Caught Up in U.S.-China Tensions

The International Olympic Committee insists that politics and the Olympics don’t mix. But despite their best efforts, some athletes at this year’s Winter Games are finding themselves caught up in the U.S.-China spat, adding an additional layer of stress to the pressure of competition and tough COVID-19 restrictions.

Trouble began simmering in December, when Washington announced that it would lead a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest at China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group native to Xinjiang. Many Western powers—including Canada, the Netherlands, the U.K. and France—have described Beijing’s repressive policies in the remote northwestern region as “genocide” and some news outlets have even dubbed these Games “the Genocide Olympics.”
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Dinigeer Yulamujiang (20 years old) was chosen as one of two torchbearers at the Uyghur Cross Country skier’s opening ceremony. China claims she was chosen for the job because of her commitment to increasing representation of minorities. She also comes, state media said, “from the part of Xinjiang where skiing as a sport is believed to have originated.” The China Daily said she was “fully deserving [of] the honor.”

It was not seen that way by U.S. officials or Western NGOs. Human Rights Watch in New York City, a rights monitoring organization, declared on Twitter that having a Uyghur light the torch was “a middle finger to the rest of the world. The Chinese government is not just committing crimes against humanity, but also flaunting it.”

Washington and Beijing are at loggerheads over everything from trade and technology to maritime navigation and Taiwan, and some experts say that it was never going to be possible to avoid politics at the Olympics, given the state of relations between the world’s two biggest powers.

“The Olympics are political through and through,” says Jules Boykoff, a sports politics expert at Pacific University in Oregon. “The Olympics stoke political nationalism by design.”

MATTHEW WALSH/AFP via Getty Images Spectators wave China’s national flags as they watch from the stands while Chinese athletes take part in the parade of delegations during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022.

Eileen Gu, politics and sport

Competitors from the Chinese diaspora, with a foot in both camps, are attracting plenty of attention—none more so than Eileen Gu, who won her first gold medal on Feb. 8 in the freeski big air event. Gu Ailing (18 years old) was born to an American father, and Chinese mother in San Francisco.

Gu competed for the U.S. for a number of seasons, but at 15 she made the decision to switch her national affiliation in 2019 and represent China in 2022. She’s hardly the first American winter sports athlete to do this: Alpine skier Jeffrey Webb, raised in the U.S., competed for Malaysia at Pyeongchang in 2018, where Michigan-born ice dancer Chris Reed also donned skates for Japan. John-Henry Krueger is skating for Hungary, having won the silver medal in 2018 for the U.S. None of the three were controversial.

Learn More: Eileen Gu, a free-skier, navigates Beijing’s Road to the Winter Olympics

Gu is a different story. In China—where she has been nicknamed “Snow Princess,” graced local editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue—Gu is the home-crowd favorite. She’s so popular that chatter about her gold medal win temporarily crashed the internet in China. Many Americans call her an opportunity seeker or worse in America. Between the beautiful comments she makes on Instagram are calls to Tibet and Hong Kong for human rights, as well as outbursts against her for competing in China.

Charlie Kirk, founder of the right-wing student group Turning Point, suggested to his 1.7 million Twitter followers that Gu was a “traitor” whose behavior was tantamount to “treason” and declared “She should never be able to enter the United States again.” (Gu still lives in the U.S. and has been accepted by Stanford University.) While conceding that the story was “much bigger than Eileen Gu,” Fox News host Will Cain told Tucker Carlson Tonight that it was “ungrateful” of Gu to “betray” and “turn her back” on America.

Gu the young has attempted to bridge the geopolitical gap. “I grew up spending 25-30% of my time in China,” she said at a press conference earlier this week, when asked by reporters if she had renounced her U.S. passport. “I am American when I am in the U.S. and Chinese when I’m in China.” But her efforts have done little to tamp down the controversy.

Mary Gallagher is a University of Michigan Professor of Political Science. She says it was reasonable for Gu to face backlash. “When an athlete chooses a nationality, then there’s more focus on the choice and, in this case, on her timing.” Does it mean that Gu supports Beijing’s crackdowns in places like Tibet and Xinjiang? “I don’t know,” says Gallagher, “but her decision seems tone deaf given the global condemnation of China’s policies.”

Continue reading: Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony Leans In to Politics

To Boykoff, “There is no question that Gu is being caught in the wider political crossfire between the U.S. and China in ways that other athletes are not. It isn’t unusual for someone to switch nationalities in order compete at the Olympics. However, she has been thrust into a political firestorm by her choice to compete as a Chinese competitor. This is a stark reminder that the Olympics are bigger than the Olympics—political machinations matter.”

Part of the problem, he adds, was “the IOC’s politics-drenched decision to hand the Games to Beijing.” Athletes are being pressured to adopt stances on China when “they had zero input about the Games’ location.”

Nationalalism during the Winter Olympics

Gu was born in China and has since renounced U.S. citizenship to become a member of Team China. The praise for Gu stands out in stark contrast to Zhu Yi’s criticism.

Although she was criticised for not being fluent in Chinese before the contest, her performance at Games provoked a flurry of hateful trolling. According to Agence France Presse 230M views were generated by the #ZhuYiFellOver hashtag on Weibo after the gymnast broke down during her routine.

“This is the Winter Olympics and you represent China, can you not be such a crybaby?” wrote one Weibo user. “She’ll just participate casually and then go back to the U.S. so she can attend the Ivy League, she doesn’t care about our Chinese figure skating,” wrote another.

Zhu Yi Olympics
Jean Catuffe—Getty Images Yi Zhu, from Team China, reacts at the Women Single Skating Free Skating Team Event on the third day of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Capital Indoor Stadium, February 7, 2022, Beijing, China.

The comments haven’t all been negative. Official media and many Weibo users have supported the comments. Wrote one: “Zhu Yi, as a youngster, gave up her American citizenship to play for her country, and that alone deserves some praise, and I support this young lady regardless of the outcome!” But Gallagher says scrutiny of Chinese athletes is increasing.

“There’s a tight connection between sports and nationalism in many countries, but in China it’s reached very high levels because China is now more visible on the global stage, is performing better in most sports, and therefore expectations are very high on Chinese athletes,” she tells TIME. “Their success is the nation’s success, their failure is the nation’s failure.”

Continue reading: Here’s the Beijing 2022 Medal Count

It is not just a Chinese phenomenon. “Here in the U.S., unfortunately, anti-China sentiments are at a fever pitch,” says Boykoff, “stoked by opportunistic politicos on both sides of the aisle who bash China in ways that all too often are often evidence-free and dripping thick with ideology.”

Either way the discussion surrounding the Olympians in this year’s Olympics does not bode very well for relations between China and the U.S. “The reality remains that there are too many people in both countries who are now determined to see the other as the enemy,” says Steve Tsang, the director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

“What is really reflected is the ugly side of the nationalists in both countries.”


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