At this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, the face of China’s sporting dreams is undeniably American.
Freestyle skier Eileen Gu’s rise to the top has been meteoric – and her popularity in China has exploded in the lead-up to the Games. “Snow princess Gu Ailing set to shine at home Olympics,” read one headline in state-run media Xinhua, referring to Gu by her Chinese name.
But Gu, 18, has another home: the United States, where she was born to a Chinese mother and American father, and where she first discovered her love for the sport. In 2015, just a few months after she reached her first World Cup podium, the San Francisco native announced she was switching to compete for China instead of the US – a controversial decision that thrust her firmly into the spotlight.
“This was an incredibly tough decision for me to make,” she wrote in an Instagram post at the time. “I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud of my American upbringings.”
She has since become a household name in China. Walk down the street and you’ll see her face splashed across billboards and magazine covers. Promotional videos ahead of the Olympics show Gu performing tricks midair and running on the Great Wall. She has nearly 2 million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, as well as multiple Chinese sponsors, brand deals, and documentary teams following her every movement.
But behind her success is the heavy pressure of being both Chinese and American at a time of intense geopolitical tensions; of representing her mother’s homeland, a country under fire in the West for alleged human rights abuses; and of trying to be an athlete and nothing more during one of the most controversial Olympics in recent history.
She’s not the only one walking this tightrope – the Beijing Olympics feature an unprecedented number of foreign-born athletes competing for China, many hailing from North America. Among them, Gu has become a poster child for an ambitious China, eager to show it has the power to attract foreign talent and mold a new type of Chinese athlete on the world stage.
But these athletes – especially those of Chinese descent – face an impossible balancing act as they straddle two countries and navigate the complexities of a dual identity in the public eye.
An impossible position
More than a dozen athletes representing China at the Olympics are foreign-born – and most are on the men’s hockey team, where only six of the 25 members are homegrown nationals.
Switching citizenship for sport is actually quite common internationally – China is just late to the game, said Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The shift is especially unusual given that China is highly homogenous with some of the world’s strictest immigration rules. “China never did things like this before,” Brownell added.
There are plenty of Caucasian faces in the mix with no Chinese ethnicity or obvious link to the country, such as former NHL players Jake Chelios and Jeremy Smith. But it’s the athletes of Chinese descent who are under the most scrutiny, such as Canadian-born hockey player Brandon Yip and US-born ice skater Zhu Yi, formerly known as Beverly Zhu.
Zhu’s disappointing Olympic debut served to illustrate the unique pressures facing these athletes. After she fell flat on the ice and finished last in the women’s short program team event Sunday, Chinese social media exploded in scorn and vitriol directed at the 19-year-old skater.
On Weibo, the hashtag “Zhu Yi has fallen” gained 200 million views in just a few hours. Many questioned why Zhu was picked for the team at the expense of a Chinese-born athlete, while others criticized her halting Mandarin. “This is such a disgrace,” said a comment with 11,000 upvotes.
Gu and Zhu are mirror images in many ways – both born in California, only a year apart in age – but Gu has charmed the public with her fluent Mandarin and familiarity with Chinese culture, and has received little of the Chinese skepticism that dogs Zhu.
Gu advanced to the Big Air finals at her first qualifying competition on Monday, after being introduced by the announcer as a “favorite” and drawing a roar from the excited crowd. But it’s unclear whether that adulation will continue if Gu doesn’t deliver the gold medals she’s tipped to win.
And Gu’s fame brings its own challenges. Fox News has labeled her the “ungrateful child of America,” a sentiment found frequently under her social media posts, as well as that of hockey players like Chelios.
“Nice to see you take all your USA successes and accomplishments to China and not represent where you were born and raised,” a commenter wrote under one of Gu’s Instagram posts last week.
Some have accused her of placing profit and prestige above taking a stand on human rights issues, with critics taking particular aim at the high-profile sponsorships she has landed in China. The US is leading a diplomatic boycott of the Games, citing the alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region – which Gu has stayed quiet on.
Through it all, Gu has tried to walk a middle path. She creates social media content in both English and Chinese, posts photos from Shanghai and California, cracks jokes for American audiences on TikTok while starring in Chinese-language documentaries in the mainland.
“When I’m in China, I’m Chinese. When I’m in the US, I’m American,” Gu told Olympic Channel at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Winter Olympics.
Just last week, she alluded to this dual identity in a caption on Instagram. “Having been introduced to the sport growing up in the US, I wanted to encourage Chinese skiers the same way my American role models inspired me,” she wrote.
But as much as she wants to express both parts of her heritage and stay away from politics, it seems the world won’t let her. And China’s embrace of Gu also reflects its uncompromising view of nationality, which has become more insular and forceful under Chinese President Xi Jinping: either you’re Chinese or you’re not.
The citizenship debate
Hanging over Gu – and many of the foreign-born athletes – is the question of citizenship.
China does not allow dual citizenship, with the government cracking down in recent years and encouraging the public to report people secretly holding two passports. There are very few exceptions to the ban, and it’s highly unlikely any of these exceptional circumstances apply to the athletes in question, said Donald Clarke, a professor at the George Washington University Law School specializing in Chinese law.
“The only way the hockey players could become Chinese citizens is to become naturalized, and under China’s nationality law, they need to renounce their foreign citizenship,” Clarke told CNN. The same goes for Gu.
But it’s not clear whether that has been enforced. Gu has never publicly shared whether she renounced her US citizenship to compete for China, and speculation grew after she applied for the US Presidential Scholars Program in 2021, which is only open to US citizens or permanent residents. The official Olympics site appeared to confirm her status in a January article that referred to Gu’s “dual nationality.”
Both Clarke and Brownell said the more likely scenario is that China bent its own rules to allow foreign-born athletes to keep two passports, hoping to bolster its Olympic medal count – long touted by the Chinese government as a sign of national strength.
This strategy might be “an experiment by the Chinese leadership, which will judge the public reaction before deciding whether to move forward with the practice on a larger scale and allowing dual citizenship to athletes,” Brownell said.
Chinese officials have carefully avoided the question of Gu’s nationality, instead emphasizing her Chinese heritage. She is what the government often refers to as “overseas Chinese” – foreign nationals of Chinese descent, given that label regardless of their citizenship or how many generations of their family have lived abroad.
Since Xi took office, he has repeatedly asserted that overseas Chinese, too, belong to the nation – and repeatedly pledged to “unite overseas Chinese” with their relatives in China as part of the “Chinese dream.”
It seems that Gu is part of that Chinese dream, with the government and its propaganda machine going full steam in claiming her as their own.
“I have very very deep roots in China,” Gu told state broadcaster CCTV, according to state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times. She added that she had been in China when it was announced the Winter Games would be held in Beijing, which is when “I started thinking about competing for China.”
In one piece, Xinhua noted that Gu visited Beijing every summer growing up, watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics from the stands, and loves Peking duck and dumplings.
Gu “should be an idol for the whole world,” a Chinese fan told the Global Times. “It used to be that people wanted to be American, so why not accept that people want to be Chinese now?”
CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed to this report.