Fanfare, controversy swirls around US-born Chinese skier Eileen Gu on eve of Olympics debut

Eileen Gu switched teams to represent China in 2019 after years of competing for the US. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - United States-born Chinese skier Eileen Gu's highly-anticipated Winter Olympics sporting debut has attracted a surge of praise and attention from Chinese fans and state media but also fresh uncomfortable questions in the country over her nationality.

The 18-year-old fashion model and incoming Stanford University student has since early on been considered Team China's best known winter athlete.

Still, the fanfare around Gu has intensified since she arrived in Beijing in late January thanks to a mix of local media coverage and her own savvy social media use.

"Freestyle ski star Gu Ailing a super idol among Chinese young people for representing true spirit of sport," nationalist tabloid Global Times wrote in a headline on Thursday which referred to her Chinese name.

Gu, who first competed for China aged 15 and is a favourite to win Olympic gold, is competing in three freestyle disciplines at the Games - halfpipe, Big Air and slopestyle.

Her first event is scheduled to be the women's freeski Big Air qualifying session on Monday (Feb 7).

Gu's front row spot in the Chinese athletes delegation at the opening ceremony to her choice of a dumpling meal when she arrived in Beijing are among Gu-related topics that have trended heavily on Chinese social media in recent weeks.

Her following on China's Weibo platform has ballooned by hundreds of thousands to 1.7 million users in a month.

Chinese media have also focused on her fluent Mandarin, Eurasian features - Gu was born to a Chinese mother and American father - proud embrace of Chinese culture and academic prowess as reasons for her popularity with China's public.

"Add oil, big sister!," said one of close to 5,000 comments left on her latest post about her appearance at the opening ceremony on Xiaohongshu, a Chinese social media app resembling Instagram. "We're watching the Olympics for you!" said another.

Some controversy

The buzz around Gu has not been without controversy, however, particularly over her decision in 2019 to switch teams and represent China after years of competing for the United States, where she was born and raised.

On Wednesday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson called Gu's decision "dumb" and said it deserved "collective revulsion" from the American public.

But while local Chinese media have shied away from the subject, the spotlight on Gu has prompted Chinese social media users to question if she gave up US citizenship to represent China at Beijing 2022. China does not allow dual nationality.

The hashtag "Gu Ailing's nationality" saw a sudden surge of interest from Feb 2 to 4 on Weibo, racking up hundreds of thousands of views.

Eileen Gu celebrates after placing first in the Women's Freeski Halfpipe competition at the Toyota US Grand Prix in California on Jan 8, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

"Most British-Chinese keep their PRC (People's Republic of China) passports, but they are very careful and scared of being caught because their (PRC) passports would be cut up... The dignity of the law compared to Winter Olympic gold, which is more precious?" wrote user Tomson.

But many of Gu's fans have defended her.

"Who cares whether she is a dual national or not!," wrote user mynameisliuxiaohun. "Regardless she is coming out to represent China, she is carrying the Chinese flag! The glory she gets is China's, who else? Isn't this good?"

Mr Tom Yaps, Gu's sports agent, said the skier was not available for interviews due to her busy competition schedule.

He did not respond to questions sent by Reuters.

Too much hype?

Such has been the hype surrounding Gu that many of her Chinese fans have begun to pre-emptively call for understanding should the teenager underperform.

"To every person worshipping her, if the result after the competition does not meet your expectations I hope you won't turn around and attack her," wrote user hundengdu, attaching the hashtag "Gu Ailing's first performance", which had already accrued over 250 million views on Sunday.

The anxiety on Weibo has also been driven by US-born Chinese figure skater Zhu Yi's last-place performance on Sunday, where she tumbled to the ice on her first combination.

While many rejected the comparison, pointing to Gu's record of gold medals, including world titles, others expressed concern about what the outpouring of criticism towards Zhu meant for Gu.

"These trashy people attacking Zhu Yi are actually increasing the emotional burden on Gu Ailing, I hope Zhu Yi and Gu Ailing do not look at their phones in these next two days and focus on the competition," user Liu Jiayi wrote.

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