“Gu Ailing, jiayou [let’s go]! One, two, three, four… My God!” These words uttered by Chinese sports commentators can be heard in a video that has been spreading like wildfire on social media in the most-populous country on the planet. The images feature the 18-year-old Eileen Gu, known in China by her Mandarin name Gu Ailing, who has won her first Olympic gold at the Beijing 2022 Winter Games in the Free Ski Big Air event, a high-risk discipline involving jumps and aerial tricks.
The young freestyle skier is a media darling who has brought international attention to herself not just because of her outstanding athletic abilities, but also because of her background: she was born and raised in San Francisco, but her family roots on her mother’s side are in China. Gu is representing China instead of the United States at the Olympics, a decision that was made against the backdrop of increasingly tense bilateral relations between both countries.
Eileen did not disappoint her fans at the women’s Big Air final run on Tuesday. The so-called “Snow Princess” secured gold to beat France’s Tess Ledeux with her third and last jump, a double cork 1620, which involves performing four-and-a-half rotations in the air and landing backwards. “I can’t believe it. I’d never tried this jump before,” she said later.
Through skiing I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication and forge friendships between nationsEileen Gu
The young athlete is under enormous pressure on several fronts: on the one hand she is competing in front of legions of fans who adore her, and on the other she is hounded by the fact that she switched allegiances at age 15 to compete for China. She has been labeled a “traitor” on social media, while a Fox News host in the US said that she was “ungrateful” for her choice to represent China.
Born and raised in San Francisco by her mother and grandmother – all that is known about her father is that he is American – Gu decided to represent her mother’s native country in 2019.
“The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love,” she wrote on her Instagram account in June 2019 to explain her decision. “Through skiing I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication and forge friendships between nations. If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true.”
But her choice has inspired very mixed feelings in different parts of the world. While she is idolized in China, she has been heavily criticized by many fans and media outlets in the US, where she is accused of putting commercial interests ahead of her real roots, and of hurting the country that trained her as an athlete and where she plans to continue her studies – she has been accepted into Stanford University, California.
So far, Gu has remained on the sidelines of the political friction. She has avoided taking a stand on alleged human-rights abuses by the Chinese government against the Uyghur minority or commenting on the Hong Kong protests, although it is likely that she is following the advice of her inner circle on these matters.
“I am American when I am in the US and I’m Chinese when I’m in China,” she has said on several occasions. It’s unclear what her immigration status is, as China does not allow dual citizenship and the International Olympic Committee makes it a rule for athletes to hold a passport of the country they are representing. Her case may have benefited from an extension of 2020 rules granting permanent residency to foreigners who have achieved international recognition in fields such as sports, science and culture.
In the meantime, China adores Gu Ailing. Her face is plastered on ads selling products and services by the telecoms giant China Mobile, the e-commerce site JD.com, the beverage company Lukin Coffee and the sportswear firm Anta Sports. She has made the covers of the Chinese editions of Vogue, Cosmopolitan and InStyle.
Third-best-paid female athlete
In the West, she is also the newest image for Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and Victoria’s Secret, and she has been invited to upscale events such as the Paris Fashion Week and the MET Gala annual fundraiser in New York. According to The Economist, a company wishing to run an ad campaign featuring the teenager must be prepared to dish out in excess of $2 million. The magazine estimated that last year Gu made over $15 million, making her the third-best-paid female athlete in terms of annual income, behind the tennis players Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
There is no questioning her athletic abilities. Ever since she began competing at an international level, she has dominated the three freestyle ski events that she is competing in at the Olympics: Big Air, Halfpipe and Slopestyle. She is also the first woman to have successfully performed a forward double cork 1440, which requires four 360º rotations and two flips more than 20 meters up in the air. She is the current world champion in Halfpipe and Slopestyle, events where she hopes to reach Olympic glory again in the coming days in Beijing.