BEIJING — Eileen Gu flew through the air, athletic grace coated in mental toughness, a clutch third run in the big-air freestyle skiing event here, and it was everything these Winter Olympics should be, right until she landed.
Gu got her gold medal and China got its pawn. It is not clear whether Gu fully understands how thoroughly she is being used. She is only 18 years old. She said she will celebrate her win by eating Ghirardelli peppermint bark chocolate, playing piano and journaling, and it was easy to see why China wants Gu to be the face of the Olympics—an extremely marketable face, one that makes people forget how China’s government really operates. Gu, who grew up in California, chose to compete for her mother’s native China, and look at that perfect smile. How bad could the government be?
Among those applauding her performance from the stands was IOC president Thomas Bach, who did what he does best, which is disgrace himself.
Why did the IOC president choose to attend the big air competition?
“You know, it's one of our new sports, and you know that I like innovation in the Olympic program and that I like to promote innovation,” Bach said.
That was a lie. Bach was there to help China sell its image. This is why he was sitting next to retired tennis player Peng Shuai. Some background, if you haven’t been following: Last year, Peng accused former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Zhang had played a prominent role in China landing the Olympics.
Since making the accusation, Peng has done something disturbing: retracted it. In controlled interviews under government pressure, she has called the accusation a “huge misunderstanding” and asked people not to “distort” her post.
“I just met her here—she was here, sitting in the stadium,” Bach said afterward. “I had the opportunity to speak with a number of athletes from Switzerland and from Germany, the U.S., and there she was, sitting there.”
What an amazing coincidence! A retired Chinese tennis player—whose story has become news almost everywhere in the world except China—just happened to be sitting next to the IOC president. Who ever could have seen this coming?
How long did he talk to her?
“I don't know,” Bach said. “I don't look at the watch when I speak with athletes.”
Did Gu know Peng would be here?
“I did not know that,” Gu said. “Someone over there just told me. But um, that's awesome. So thank you so much for the support, Peng Shuai. And hopefully I get to meet her.”
That will be hard, since Bach said Peng had to go off to “quarantine” in preparation for leaving the closed loop, which absolutely nobody should take at face value.
Gu grew up in California to a Chinese mother, but she says she spent a few months every year in China when she was a child, and in 2019, she chose to compete internationally for China even though she is an American. She is far from the first athlete to exchange flags, and she has a right to do it. Home is not just a place; it is an idea and a feeling, and if Gu wants to represent China, she can. It certainly does not, in itself, mean that this teenager endorses the Chinese government and its policies. By that logic, Mikaela Shiffrin represented Donald Trump in 2018 and Joe Biden this week. That’s not how the Olympics work or should work.
It is fair to wonder whether Gu chose to compete for China because she can make exponentially more money that way. But we should be careful with assumptions and judgments here, too. We don’t know the conversations that led to her decision, we don’t know every thought bouncing around inside Gu’s brain, and anyway, choosing to do business in China because it’s lucrative is as American as anything else we will see this week.
Still, there is something chilling about the Chinese government using Gu as a PR weapon. China is facing increasing and deserved pressure for its atrocious human-rights record, and squelching of political dissent and religious freedom, and it is deploying an 18-year-old girl from San Francisco as a shield.
Chinese law prohibits dual citizenship, and this has led to speculation about whether Gu surrendered her U.S. passport to compete for China. Twice, just after the competition, reporters asked her about it. Gu was asked the same question again multiple times in her press conference. Each time, her answers seemed like they were spit out of a government computer program. I kept looking to see if she pushed a button on her wrist before she spoke.
REPORTER: “Did you have to give up your U.S. citizenship to compete for China?"
GU: “I’ve always been super outspoken about my gratitude to the U.S., especially the U.S. team. I feel as though they've helped me out so much in my development, they continue to support me. And same with the Chinese team. They've always been super supportive and they've helped me so much. And so in that sense, I think that that speaks volumes to the ability of sport to bridge the gap and to be a force for unity.”
This is like responding to “What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?” with an 80-word answer about your appreciation of milk cows. Gu obviously made a deal. The only question is, what were the terms? If Chinese officials allowed her to maintain her U.S. citizenship, it would likely be under the condition that she keep quiet about it, lest the world know they violated their own law. If they forced her to give up her U.S. citizenship, that would bring backlash in the States.
When she was asked again to clarify her citizenship status, Gu demurred: “Yeah, um, first of all, I'm an 18-year old girl. I'm a kid. I haven't even gone to college yet. I'm a pretty normal person . . .”
She ended the non-answer with this: “If people don't have a good heart, they won't believe me, because they can't empathize with people who do have a good heart. And so in that sense, I feel as though it's a lot easier to block out the hate now. And also, they're never going to know what it feels like to win an Olympic gold medal.”
Hold on here: Believe what? Gu was asked a straightforward question, and rather than answer it or even say, “that’s a private matter,” she spewed nonsense about being a “force for unity.” She might as well have talked about being “together for a shared future”—the slogan plastered at every venue here.
Gu is competing for her mom’s home country, where she says she spent a lot of time as a child, and that’s O.K. You just had to listen to her confidently answer questions in Mandarin, with no translator or handler by her side, to believe she genuinely feels Chinese. But if she thinks she is here to “block out the hate,” and that people questioning her role here “don’t have a good heart,” she is naive at best. She put on a hell of a show Tuesday. Unfortunately, she then starred in another one.
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