More than any other athlete, freestyle skier Eileen Gu has been caught up in geopolitical tensions surrounding the Beijing Winter Olympics. She’s a heavy favorite to take gold in all of her three events—big air, slope style, and half pipe—and she’s also expected to answer for Chinese government policies.
Hounded for her views on Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and tennis player Peng Shuai, the 18-year-old stopped giving interviews the past few months.
To be sure, all actions are political, and she chose to compete for China, not the US, where she was born and mostly raised. And these are the most political games in recent memory, with diplomatic boycotts from multiple countries. Olympic corporate sponsors are taking heat, too.
Still, other athletes are not subjected to this kind of questioning—Russians at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, by and large, were not expected to answer for Vladimir Putin’s track record.
It’s also hard to imagine if she had chosen to compete for Team USA that she would be pressed to answer for the US government—the pandemic response, structural racism, or the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, for instance.
Gu’s treatment raises questions about our expectations beyond athletic performance, and whether they make any sense.
“At the Summer Games, we have nearly 12,000 athletes, maybe 7,000 to 8,000 at the Winter Games,” said Stephan Wassong, a professor at German Sport University’s Center for Olympic Studies. “What will happen if everyone is making a political statement, a sign, or expressing political sympathy? The attention would be completely off the competition itself.”
Part of what makes Gu a target is her biculturalism. She used to compete with Team USA but switched in 2019 to represent China.
Gu, who is biracial, was raised in San Francisco but spent her summers in Beijing with her mother’s family. Her father is thought to be American but she doesn’t say anything about him in interviews, only offering up that she was raised by a single mom.
Each athlete must hold the nationality of the country they represent in the Olympics, but Gu has been intentionally vague about whether she has given up her American passport. Dual nationality is not allowed by China.
A Chinese athlete who had been raised solely in China would not attract the same level of interrogation. The rest of Team China has been spared these questions. But with Gu there is a sense “she should know better,” having been educated in the West. She graduated from the prestigious University High School in San Francisco and will enroll at Stanford after the Games.
Chinese athletes are held to a different standard overall by the Western press. When tennis star Li Na made history becoming the first Chinese woman to win a grand slam at the 2011 French Open, she was asked about the Tiananmen Square killings more than two decades earlier. Contrast that Serbia’s Novak Djokovic who does not field questions about the Srebenica massacre after tournaments. Li declined to answer.
It’s also worth acknowledging what’s at stake for Gu. A statement in support of Xinjiang’s oppressed Uyghur minority or Hong Kong’s democracy movement would see her swift removal from Team China. She could lose her sporting career, her livelihood, and even her liberty.
It would have huge financial implications for her. Her fanbase and market potential in China—where she has been followed by the press since she was a child—has always been bigger than in the West.
Some might criticize the morality of this. But is it fair to ask athletes to leave money on the table? Fame does not always equate earnings, and more than one Olympic medalist has struggled to even make ends meet after their sporting career is over.
The political tightrope
This week, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Americans competing not to protest during the Games. “You’re there to compete. Do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless…I also worry about what the Chinese government might do to their reputations, to their families.”
Foreigners who aggrieve the Chinese Communist Party seriously enough typically get banned from the country. It can be worse for China’s own subjects who step out of line, such as artist Ai Weiwei or Liu Xia, the wife of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who were both put under house arrest.
“When you are a Chinese national, you are subject to different standards,” said Rui Zhong, program associate at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the US. “It would be dangerous.”
This delicate balancing act for Gu may only grow harder with time.
China increasingly pressures its public figures to come out in support of party views. Whether it’s to insist on Taiwan’s inclusion on maps of China, the approval of Hong Kong police’s use of force on pro-democracy protesters, or a doubling down on Xinjiang cotton, celebrities and companies alike are expected to echo their support. On certain sensitive matters, staying silent is not enough.
Right now, it is the West demanding that she speak out on political issues. It’s only a matter of time before China will ask that of her too.