At Beijing bus stops and train stations, there are images of her holding Lunar New Year treats. At newsstands, she is the cover girl of this month's Vogue, a fashion publication. If you did not see those, you can hear her talking in Mandarin about the 2022 Winter Olympics Games.
She is 18-year-old Eileen Gu.
She is one of the world’s top freestyle skiers in three events: big air, halfpipe and slopestyle. Less than two years ago, Gu won gold in halfpipe and big air, as well as a silver in slopestyle at the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lausanne 2020.
She was born on September 3, 2003, in San Francisco, California, to an American father and a Chinese mother. She is also known as Gu Ailing in Mandarin. She finished high school early and plans to go to Stanford University in northern California. Gu trained to ski at nearby Lake Tahoe. She started to compete in major skiing events in 2018 as an American.
On June 7, 2019, however, Gu announced her decision on Instagram to represent her mother's homeland in the 2022 Winter Olympics. "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."
A cover model
Some experts say the reason behind Gu's decision may not be that simple.
Besides her sports career, Gu is a model who has appeared on the cover of Vogue and Elle in China. She has attended events such as the Met Gala in New York and Paris fashion week. She represents luxury goods companies, including Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, and Estee Lauder.
Lisa Pike Masteralexis teaches Sports Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She told VOA in an email, "Considering her goal of being a decorated Olympian, a role model, a fashion model, and with the growing market conditions in China, it appears to be a savvy move by Eileen Gu and her agency, IMG."
Susan Brownell is a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis with expertise in Chinese sports and the Olympic Games. She told VOA, "What's interesting about her is that she does have a number of major sponsorships, and, so, it appears that representing China is actually appealing to those sponsors…”
Reuters reported that Gu recently came to represent a wide variety of Chinese companies, from large technology company JD.com to food producer China Mengniu Dairy.
IMG did not respond to a request for comments by VOA.
Question of citizenship
In 2020, Gu told ESPN "Since I was little, I've always said when I'm in the U.S., I'm American, but when I'm in China, I'm Chinese."
However, Gu's decision to represent China has raised questions about her citizenship status.
One of Gu's main sponsors, Red Bull, an energy drink company, used to have a message on its website that said: "At the age of 15, US-born Gu decided to give up her American passport and naturalize as a Chinese citizen in order to compete for China in Beijing – because Chinese law doesn't recognize dual nationality."
After The Wall Street Journal attempted to confirm Gu's citizenship status in January, Red Bull removed the message.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires that any competitor in the games “must be a national of the country” that is entering the competitor. And the International Ski Federation (FIS) lists Gu as a Chinese athlete.
Although Masteralexis thinks Gu is following both the IOC and FIS rules, she said, "It has been reported in Chinese media going back 2-3 years that Eileen Gu was granted Chinese citizenship, and China does not recognize dual citizenship. The US does recognize dual citizenship, so one does wonder if China has created an exception for Gu."
Brownell added that it is not unusual for athletes to represent countries other than their birth countries at major sports events. She noted that the U.S. offered citizenship to four Kenyan-born athletes at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
Gu and her agent have not answered questions from VOA and other media organizations. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) directed questions from VOA to Chinese officials who have chosen not to comment.
Two other American-born athletes, Ashley Lin and Beverly Zhu are also representing China while competing in figure skating events at the winter games. But Gu represents China’s best hope for a gold medal.
On Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, there is a recent video that has been viewed billions of times about Gu. The video says, "Chinese fans, let's not put too much pressure on Gu." A few hours later, Gu answered with crying faces: “Why don’t you have more faith in me?”
I’m Jonathan Evans. And I'm Jill Robbins.
Adrianna Zhang reported this story for VOA. Hai Do adapted the story for Learning English with additional reporting from Reuters and the Olympic Games.
Words in this Story
freestyle – n. a competition in which competitors are permitted to use different styles and methods
inspire – v. to make someone to do something
promote – v. to make people aware of something
luxury – adj. something that is expensive and not necessary
savvy – adj. having knowledge of something
sponsorship – n. an arrangement in which an athlete receive money in exchange for representing an organization or product
variety – n. a number of different thing
status – n. official position
dual – adj. having two different parts
faith – n. strong belief in someone or something