At Beijing 2022 politics and superpower rivalry are dominating the headlines. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of Eileen Gu, the US-born Chinese freestyle skier that is taking the sport by storm.
Olympics are often cited as a moment to focus on sport and celebrate the symbolic coming together of nations on a neutral stage. Yet this hasn’t always been the case and there are many examples of the Olympic Games becoming deeply politicised. From the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, held at the eve of the Second World War, to the Cold War boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Games, where groups of countries led by the USA and USSR refused to send their athletes to the Moscow and Los Angeles Summer Games respectively, the Games have a history of becoming an arena where international tensions play out.
The politicisation of the Winter Olympic Games
In the buildup to Beijing 2022 Games, a handful of Western powers announced, largely symbolic, diplomatic boycotts. This has meant that government officials were not sent to attend the Games due to “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” Furthermore, the general portrayal of Beijing 2022 has been overwhelmingly negative, with media focusing on the, albeit undeniable, human rights, environmental and political issues currently playing out in the People’s Republic.
On the other hand, China has taken the chance to flex its muscles and show its rising global influence and power, inviting President Putin as an honorary guest at the Opening Ceremony in Beijing and defying criticism for their treatment of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group by selecting a relatively unknown Uyghur athlete, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, to light the Olympic cauldron alongside a teammate of the Han Chinese ethnic majority.
The spillover effect has been clear. Not only has NBC, owner of the viewing rights in the USA, declared that viewer ratings have been at a historic low – down 43 per cent compared to the previous edition in PyeongChang 2018 – but athletes have also been drawn into the politicisation of the event. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment of one of the sporting sensations of these Winter Olympics: US-born Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Ailing Gu.
Who is Eileen Gu?
From the age of nine to her first Freeski slopestyle World Cup gold medal on the Italian slopes of Seiser Alm, Gu was considered a US athlete, training with the national team and competing at events around the world representing the stars and stripes. However, in the wake of her winning run in Italy, and in the build-up to Beijing 2022, Gu made the controversial decision to switch teams and join team China, as a way to honour her Chinese roots and to help build the country’s winter-sports market, inspiring a new generation of skiers.
On June 6 2019, she posted this message on the social media platform Weibo, where she is followed by almost five million fans: “I am proud to represent China in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. I hope the pursuit of extreme sports can be a means through which people in China and the United States can enhance their communication, understanding and friendship… Beijing I am coming!”
Since her decision, Eileen Gu has steadily grown into a dominating force in woman’s freeskiing, amassing a dozen podium finishes in World Cup events across the globe – in the Half pipe, Slopestyle and Big air competitions – and arriving at Beijing 2022 as one of the favourites to take gold across all three disciplines. And her success is not just limited to the ski slopes. Gu gained entrance to the prestigious Stanford University and has earned lucrative sponsorship deals from brands such as Adidas, Tiffany and Louis Vuitton, as well as featuring on the covers of Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. No mean feat for an up and coming athlete in a relatively young and niche sport such as freeskiing.
As of February 18 Gu has won two gold and one silver medals in the Beijing 2022 Big air, Half pipe and Slopestyle events, gaining international media attention and becoming the de facto poster child of the Chinese Olympic team, her face plastered on posters across Olympic venues and even causing Weibo’s servers to overload as millions of users took to the social media platform to celebrate her gold medal on February 8.
Just as Gu has been raised on a pedestal and revered in China, she has also come under intense scrutiny from American media and social media users for her decision to leave her natal country’s national team. Having grown up in San Francisco – living and training with other US athletes throughout her childhood and early teens – Eileen Gu has been accused of betraying her roots and choosing to represent China due to the lucrative deals that this new exposure to the Chinese market could bring.
Furthermore, a lot of media attention has pointed to her failure to condemn human rights abuses and government censorship in China, claiming that her choice of team will only serve to legitimise the Chinese government. Undeniably, Gu has chosen to remain silent on issues such as the treatment of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group, the crushing of civil liberties in Hong Kong and the cracking down of freedom of speech via the imprisonment of journalists and monitoring of the internet.
However, it is also undeniable that she has used her voice to attract countless new fans to the sport, particularly in her motherland where winter sports are still in a stage of infancy. An achievement that should not be overlooked or trivialised considering that she is first and foremost an athlete. Gu has also used social media, including Instagram which is banned in China, to defend her fellow American born Chinese athlete Zhu Yi, who suffered intense cyberbullying at the hands of Chinese social media users after recording two falls in the team figure skating competition – which penalised the Chinese team causing them to lose the bronze medal position and finish fifth.
Talking to reporters on February 8, Gu offered support for her teammate: “I think she’s amazing. Anyone who can make it to the Olympic Winter Games is already amazing. Mistakes and pressure are both part of the sport. I think many athletes also fell today, as you saw. Therefore, we should have some sportsmanship […]. Of course, everybody wants her to get good results, but she especially wanted to get good results for herself. That’s why I hope people can try and understand her situation better. I think she’s done her best.”
Eileen Gu has also used her influence and appeal to speak up for female empowerment, as well as against racism in the USA during the Black Lives Matter protests, writing on Instagram: “Seeing how many people are using their platforms to raise awareness on social media warms my heart. However, this is not enough. This movement is more than just a trend […]. Write to your local leaders or senators, join a peaceful protest.”
As a person of Asian origin living in the USA, the issue of Asian hate crimes also hit close to home. Once again taking to Instagram to write in one of her stories: “The fact that my very own Chinese grandmother could have been a victim of a hate crime […] genuinely terrifies me.”
The athlete’s role
The issue of whether athletes should get involved in politics is hotly contested. From taking the knee at American Football Games, inspired by Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement, to issues surrounding holding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar that has also been mired with allegations of Human rights abuses, the question of whether athletes should use their influence and appeal to speak out is hotly contested.
On the one hand, athletes have a unique platform. On the other, they have that platform because of their contributions to sport and not their expertise in political and social issues. If they choose to speak out then we should judge them for what they say. But, if they don’t, should we condemn them for not voicing an opinion or taking a stance on a matter that they may not feel strongly about or simply do not comprehend enough?
During a Beijing 2022 press conference, in the wake of her gold medal victory, Eileen Gu responded to criticism by stating that she is using her voice “to create as much positive change as I can in an area that is personal and relevant to myself.” As an 18-year-old woman, propelled to the centre of media attention and steadily being dragged into the politics of deteriorating US-China relations, it seems wise for her to stick to the issues that she feels confident about. It also seems opportunistic to criticise her, and not others, for not taking a stronger approach.
As Gu accepted her second Olympic medal on Tuesday 15, draped in the Chinese flag and beaming from ear to ear, it is impossible not to appreciate how much her choice can do for inspiring countless young people in the People’s Republic to pursue winter sports and aim for Olympic success. Certainly, there are deep-rooted social, environmental and political issues that need to be discussed and cannot be swept under the carpet but perhaps we should hold all athletes to the same standards, judging them for their sporting achievements – and potentially for what they say – and not what they don’t say.