Behind the ‘opportunistic’ Olympic defection that left the US stunned
She could be America’s next Olympic darling — a stunning 18-year-old skier who signed with Victoria’s Secret and plans to attend Stanford University after she vies for gold in Beijing.
But Eileen Gu won’t be competing for the US.
Instead, in a move that’s baffled members of the American skiing community, San Francisco-born-and-bred Gu has joined Team China.
“I have decided to compete for China in the 2022 Winter Olympics,” Gu announced in a 2019 tweet, months after she earned her first World Cup win in Italy at 15.
“The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mum was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help promote the sport I love.”
The New York Post reports others in the sport are questioning why Gu, an ultra-athletic freeskier and favorite to claim as many as three gold medals when the games begin this week, would side with the host nation, which is accused of abusing human rights and engaging in unfair trade policies.
The Beijing showpiece has been described as “the most politicized Games in recent memory” with Australia and the United States leading a diplomatic boycott.
Australia confirmed in December it will not send a diplomatic delegation to the Games — a move that continues to incense China, according to reports.
The boycott surrounds widespread human rights abuses by China and what the United States sees as a “genocide” against the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.
It’s one of many reasons Gu’s decision caught the US off guard — and leaves her as a major political weapon in the frosty relationship between the two superpower countries.
“It is not my place to judge, but Eileen is from California, not from China, and her decision [to ski for China] seems opportunistic,” Jen Hudak, a former Winter X Games gold medallist for the USA women’s team, told the New York Post
“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.
“I think she would be a different skier if she grew up in China.”
“This makes me sad,” added Hudak, who retired in 2014 after knee injuries derailed her career and have since co-founded Escaped Trailers. “It would be nice to see the medals going to America.”
Gu, a US citizen, made her decision with input from her Chinese mother, Yan, an outspoken “Tiger Mum” and an American father who keeps a low profile, said one of her former coaches.
“All roads to Eileen go through Yan,” said Mike Hanley, head of school at Wy’East Mountain Academy in Oregon, a training facility for Olympic skiers such as Nick Goepper and Alex Beaulieu.
“Yan is very pleasant but one of the most intense human beings I have ever met in my life. She smiles and tells you how great you are. But then you find out, after the fact, what the requests are. She loves her daughter and wants her daughter to get priority.”
Brands clamor over golden girl
There could be an economic incentive, too.
“She is the golden star for the country with the fastest-growing economy,” Hanley said. “She can be the Tony Hawk of winter sports in China.”
Gu is not the first American to cross from West to East. Figure skaters Beverly Zhu and Ashley Lin were both born in the US and now compete for China. But neither is at Gu’s level in their sport.
“Most people compete for other countries because they can’t make the American team,” Hudak said.
Gu’s talent is undeniable. In November, at the Steamboat Freeski Big Air competition, she became the first woman to pull off a tricky stunt that once seemed impossible for females to execute: a “1440 double cork.” She shot up a ramp and into the sky, then completed four 360-degree rotations, before landing flat on her skis. A blown-away NBC announcer gushed that Gu “absolutely stomped the field”.
Freeskiing blends the gravity-defying acrobatics of snowboarding with the challenges of alpine racing. The event features the kinds of tricks, jumps and obstacles often seen in skateboarding competitions.
“She is the gold medal favorite,” said Hudak, noting that Gu will compete in three events in Beijing: big air, half-pipe, and slopestyle.
“I don’t think anyone is at her level. I can see her getting medals in all three events this year.”
In America, Gu’s sponsors include Red Bull, Cadillac, the Apple-owned Beats by Dre headphones, and Victoria’s Secret, where she was announced as one of the new faces of the brand last year. In the pages of Harpers Bazaar, Gu modeled the lingerie brand’s activewear in an image that showed her flying through the air.
She was also on the cover of the iconic fashion magazine Vogue in 2021.
But those big names are dwarfed by the deals being made in China, where the national broadcaster, CCTV, has described Gu as “the perfect child next door”. Others in China have dubbed her the “Snow Princess”.
So far she’s inked more than 20 endorsement deals in her adopted homeland, signing with companies such as the Bank of China, China Mobile, and milk company Mengniu. She is also the spokesperson for Luckin’ Coffee, the Starbucks of China. According to campaignasia.com, a single endorsement deal with the skier costs about $2.5 million.
Former Olympic volleyball broadcaster and publicist Jeff Ruffolo, who has extensive experience working at sports events in China, told the Washington Post Gu can have the same impact as China’s first NBA star Yao Ming, who became a 2.29m tall cult hero in the American basketball league.
“She’s going to be as big as Yao Ming was,” Ruffolo said. “These Olympics are going to be her NBA.”
What makes Gu so special?
When the Olympics start, Gu’s biggest challenger could be France’s big air specialist, Tess Ledeux, who last week executed four-and-a-half rotations for a 1620 double cork during an X Games competition.
That new record planted a seed of doubt among some Gu watchers. In a video that went viral on China’s equivalent of TikTok, a poster suggested, “Chinese fans, let’s not put too much pressure on Gu.” Unaccustomed to doubters, Gu replied to her fans: “Why don’t you have more faith in me?”
Gu’s success stems from her dedication, said Peter Olenick, who coached Gu at a Red Bull training camp.
“She has a ton of talent and passion for the sport, but, in the end it is her work ethic,” he told The New York Post. “She is the first one at training and the last to leave. She competes in multiple events; then she goes home to run and train. That is unusual.”
Being fearless also helps.
“She came up with the mentality of following guys around and doing tricks that they do,” Elijah Teter, the athletic director at Wy’East Mountain Academy, told The Post.
“She’s used to crashing and that is tricky for women. A couple of summers ago, on Mount Hood, Eileen clipped the deck and got a very bad concussion. That took her out for a week. It’s an injury that can make people fearful. Not Eileen. She gets past the fear.”
Her intelligence is also obvious, Olenick said. Gu notched a nearly perfect 1580 SAT score, speaks fluent Mandarin, and has already been accepted to Stanford.
“Eileen is incredibly smart and likes to make the skier boys feel dumb,” he said. “She uses bigger words than they do. She talks about things that go beyond skiing and hanging out. She throws chemistry stuff at them.”
Skiing isn’t her only sport. While attending a private school in the Bay Area on America’s west coast, Gu became an elite runner. “She was one of the top long-distance runners in California,” said Hanley.
But Gu ultimately focused on freeskiing because of her mother. Yan saw her daughter take up downhill skiing at the age of three and was concerned about how fast she was whooshing down the slopes. Hoping to temper her speed, Yan enrolled her daughter in freestyle lessons, not realizing the sport involves even more risks and greater danger than standard alpine ski racing.
But Gu took to it all. She focused on winning events and Yan served as her biggest booster, according to Hanley.
“Yan is not going to back down,” he said. “These sports are very expensive. So many of Americans ask for favors. Yan was willing to pay, which is very rare in the action sports industry. She paid for coaching and travel.”
Meanwhile, in China, Gu will be supported by the government, said a former X Games athlete who asked not to be identified. “The amount of money and the amount of support she gets from China will be so much higher than what she would get in America,” he said.
Two years after that World Cup victory in Italy, Gu became the first Chinese athlete to win gold in the X Games and the first rookie to snag the top medal for the superpipe event in January 2021.
And now it’s on to Beijing — to compete for China.
It’s a decision that to Hanley “seems practical and pragmatic, just like every decision she makes.”