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Winter Olympics 2022: Freestyle skier Eileen Gu causes controversy by competing for China despite being born in US

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Eileen Gu’s skills are performed at such speed that they are difficult to compute in real-time, as she sails 22ft in the air, twisting her body like a corkscrew while clutching the bottom of her ski.

Before each jump she closes her eyes and visualises her performance, imagining how each scene will play out.

You might wonder if she also envisaged how the post-event press conference would manifest, too, because Gu handled the growing controversy over her nationality with similar aplomb.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Men's and Women's Official Training - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 6, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China in action during training. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
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The daughter of a Chinese mother and an American father, Gu was born and has always lived in the US

The 18-year-old is the standout star of the Beijing Winter Olympics, already a champion in one freestyle skiing event and the favourite to win two more gold medals.

But just hours after a thrilling last-run victory in the Big Air final, she was navigating questions about why she chose to represent China and the country’s human rights record.

The daughter of a Chinese mother and an American father, Gu was born and has always lived in the US, learning to ski in the mountains of California.

But in 2019, aged 15 and with the Beijing Games just three years away, Gu decided unexpectedly to transfer her allegiance from the US to China.

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It was a big blow for the USA to lose a once-in-a-generation talent, not to mention a fashion model and confident public speaker, someone with the star power to transform a sport.

For her part, Gu said she wanted to “help inspire millions of young people” in her mother’s own country to take up the sport she loves.

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2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 3 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Gold medallist Gu Ailing Eileen of China celebrates during the flower ceremony. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
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Gu is the favourite to win two more gold medals

In an Instagram post from the time, she wrote: “Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication and forge friendships between nations.”

But rather than bringing people together, Gu’s move has proved divisive.

Another former USA skier, Jen Hudak, said: “It is not my place to judge, but Eileen is from California, not from China, and her decision [to ski for China] seems opportunistic.

“She became the athlete she is because she grew up in the United States, where she had access to premier training grounds and coaching that, as a female, she might not have had in China.”

Gu’s former coaches have praised her work ethic and the way she balanced skiing and school.

She already has a place secured at one of America’s most prestigious universities, where she has expressed an interest in studying international relations.

But Gu is already gaining real-world experience in grappling with geopolitics.

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2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Qualification - Run 2 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 7, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China in action. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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Not only a freestyle skier, she is also due to study at a prestigious US university

In the wake of her gold medal win, she was repeatedly asked by journalists about whether she remains a US citizen but somehow managed to avoid giving a straight answer.

The International Olympic Committee requires all competitors to have a passport for the country they represent but China does not recognise dual-nationality.

Neither Gu, nor her many big-ticket sponsors, will say whether she gave up her American passport in order to transfer allegiance.

“Sport is a way we can unite people, it doesn’t need to be about nationality,” Gu said, “we are all out here together, pushing the human limits”.

“I grew up spending 25% of my time in China, I’m fluent in Mandarin and English and fluent culturally in both countries. When I’m in the USA, I’m American, when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”

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Gu was also asked about suggestions that she has become a political pawn for China’s ruling party, a way for them to sport wash away evidence of oppressive policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, and other human rights concerns.

The tennis player Peng Shuai was in the crowd to watch Gu’s gold medal victory.

She disappeared from public view after accusing a senior former government official of sexual abuse on her social media account.

Peng Shuai saw the women's freestyle skiing big air finals with IOC president Thomas Bach, centre
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Peng Shuai watched the women’s freestyle skiing big air finals with IOC president Thomas Bach (centre)

When Peng Shuai reappeared, she retracted her allegations but many believe she has been silenced.

“I’m grateful she is happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again,” Gu said, “I’m happy to know she was here.”

Peng Shuai may be a cautionary tale for Eileen Gu that unlike in her home country, athletes are not encouraged to speak out in China and those who do can face severe consequences.

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