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Why Winter Olympic Athletes Like Eileen Gu Are Getting Caught Up in U.S.-China Tensions

7 minute read

The International Olympic Committee insists that politics and the Olympics don’t mix. But despite their best efforts, some athletes at this year’s Winter Games are finding themselves caught up in the U.S.-China spat, adding an additional layer of stress to the pressure of competition and tough COVID-19 restrictions.

Trouble began simmering in December, when Washington announced that it would lead a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest at China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group native to Xinjiang. Many Western powers—including Canada, the Netherlands, the U.K. and France—have described Beijing’s repressive policies in the remote northwestern region as “genocide” and some news outlets have even dubbed these Games “the Genocide Olympics.”

At the opening ceremony on Feb. 4, a 20-year-old Uyghur cross country skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, was one of two athletes chosen to light the cauldron. China says she was given the prestigious job in order to boost representation of minorities. She also comes, state media said, “from the part of Xinjiang where skiing as a sport is believed to have originated.” The China Daily said she was “fully deserving [of] the honor.”

But U.S. officials and Western NGOs did not see it that way. Human Rights Watch, the New York City-based rights monitor, declared on Twitter that having a Uyghur light the torch was “a middle finger to the rest of the world. The Chinese government is not just committing crimes against humanity, but also flaunting it.”

Washington and Beijing are at loggerheads over everything from trade and technology to maritime navigation and Taiwan, and some experts say that it was never going to be possible to avoid politics at the Olympics, given the state of relations between the world’s two biggest powers.

“The Olympics are political through and through,” says Jules Boykoff, a sports politics expert at Pacific University in Oregon. “The Olympics stoke political nationalism by design.”

Spectators wave China's national flags as they watch from the stands while Chinese athletes take part in the parade of delegations during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022.MATTHEW WALSH/AFP via Getty Images

Eileen Gu and the politics of sport

Competitors from the Chinese diaspora, with a foot in both camps, are attracting plenty of attention—none more so than Eileen Gu, who won her first gold medal on Feb. 8 in the freeski big air event. The 18-year-old, also known by her Chinese name Gu Ailing, was born in San Francisco to an American father and a Chinese mother.

Gu spent a few seasons competing for the U.S. at major events, but in 2019, at the age of 15, she decided that she would switch national affiliation and compete for China in 2022. She’s hardly the first American winter sports athlete to do this: Alpine skier Jeffrey Webb, raised in the U.S., competed for Malaysia at Pyeongchang in 2018, where Michigan-born ice dancer Chris Reed also donned skates for Japan. At the present Games, skater John-Henry Krueger, who won a silver medal for the U.S. in 2018, is competing for Hungary. None of them aroused any controversy.

Read More: Free-Skier Eileen Gu Navigates the Road to the Winter Olympics in Beijing

Not so with Gu. In China—where she has been nicknamed “Snow Princess,” and graced local editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue—Gu is the home-crowd favorite. She’s so popular that chatter about her gold medal win temporarily crashed the internet in China. But in the U.S., many call her an opportunist or worse. In between the adorning comments on her Instagram posts are calls for human rights in Hong Kong and Tibet, and outbursts of pure vitriol against the teenager for competing for China.

Charlie Kirk, founder of the right-wing student group Turning Point, suggested to his 1.7 million Twitter followers that Gu was a “traitor” whose behavior was tantamount to “treason” and declared “She should never be able to enter the United States again.” (Gu still lives in the U.S. and has been accepted by Stanford University.) While conceding that the story was “much bigger than Eileen Gu,” Fox News host Will Cain told Tucker Carlson Tonight that it was “ungrateful” of Gu to “betray” and “turn her back” on America.

The young Gu has tried her best to straddle the geopolitical divide. “I grew up spending 25-30% of my time in China,” she said at a press conference earlier this week, when asked by reporters if she had renounced her U.S. passport. “I am American when I am in the U.S. and Chinese when I’m in China.” But her efforts have done little to tamp down the controversy.

Mary Gallagher a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, says that the backlash against Gu was to be expected. “When an athlete chooses a nationality, then there’s more focus on the choice and, in this case, on her timing.” Does it mean that Gu supports Beijing’s crackdowns in places like Tibet and Xinjiang? “I don’t know,” says Gallagher, “but her decision seems tone deaf given the global condemnation of China’s policies.”

Read More: The Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony Leaned In to Politics

To Boykoff, “There is no question that Gu is being caught in the wider political crossfire between the U.S. and China in ways that other athletes are not. While changing nationalities to compete in the Olympics is not all that uncommon, her decision to compete for China has thrust her into a political firestorm. This is a stark reminder that the Olympics are bigger than the Olympics—political machinations matter.”

Part of the problem, he adds, was “the IOC’s politics-drenched decision to hand the Games to Beijing.” Athletes are being pressured to adopt stances on China when “they had zero input about the Games’ location.”

Nationalism at the Winter Olympics

The adulation for Gu in China stands in contrast to the outpouring of criticism for figure skater Zhu Yi, who was born in Los Angeles but renounced her U.S. citizenship to join Team China in 2018.

Before the competition, she faced criticism for her lack of fluency in Chinese, but her performance at the Games sparked a maelstrom of hateful trolling. When the athlete broke down in tears on Monday, after falling during her routine, the hashtag #ZhuYiFellOver racked up 230 million views on microblogging site Weibo, according to Agence France-Presse.

“This is the Winter Olympics and you represent China, can you not be such a crybaby?” wrote one Weibo user. “She’ll just participate casually and then go back to the U.S. so she can attend the Ivy League, she doesn’t care about our Chinese figure skating,” wrote another.

Zhu Yi Olympics
Yi Zhu of Team China reacts during the Women Single Skating Free Skating Team event on day three of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 07, 2022 in Beijing, China.Jean Catuffe—Getty Images

The comments haven’t all been negative. The official press has been supportive, as have many Weibo users. Wrote one: “Zhu Yi, as a youngster, gave up her American citizenship to play for her country, and that alone deserves some praise, and I support this young lady regardless of the outcome!” But Gallagher says scrutiny of Chinese athletes is increasing.

“There’s a tight connection between sports and nationalism in many countries, but in China it’s reached very high levels because China is now more visible on the global stage, is performing better in most sports, and therefore expectations are very high on Chinese athletes,” she tells TIME. “Their success is the nation’s success, their failure is the nation’s failure.”

Read More: Here’s the Beijing 2022 Medal Count

That kind of nationalism is by no means limited to China. “Here in the U.S., unfortunately, anti-China sentiments are at a fever pitch,” says Boykoff, “stoked by opportunistic politicos on both sides of the aisle who bash China in ways that all too often are often evidence-free and dripping thick with ideology.”

Either way, the discourse surrounding Olympians this year does not bode well for the relationship between the U.S. and China. “The reality remains that there are too many people in both countries who are now determined to see the other as the enemy,” says Steve Tsang, the director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

“What is really reflected is the ugly side of the nationalists in both countries.”

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Write to Amy Gunia / Hong Kong at amy.gunia@time.com