Eileen Gu is the Asian American to watch at these 2022 Winter Olympics, but not so much for her twisting, flipping, and spinning through the air in multiple 360s during a 90-second freestyle ski run.
Gu’s gaining notoriety by applying her athleticism to the geo-political nature of these “Xi-Putin Games.”
I call it Gu’s Olympic blur.
As long as she can continue her tricks, done so fast you have to see it in slo-motion like reaching across her body with her left hand to grab her right ski as she twists and turns in the air, and then in seconds land on both skis as she skids to the base of the mountain. If she can keep doing that, maybe she can stay above it all.
But who knows for sure?
Eileen Gu is getting attention because she brings a new twist to the frequent question all Asian Americans get.
You know, “Where you from?” usually followed with the probing follow-up, “Where are you really from?”
For Eileen Gu, just 18, it’s complicated by choice.
That’s her Olympic Blur.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Gu is essentially the constitutional daughter of Wong Kim Ark, poster child of the 14th Amendment and birthright citizenship. It’s the 1898 case that determined if one is born on U.S. soil, you are, without a doubt, an American citizen.
Yet, Gu’s mother Yan Gu calls the shots. Yan was born in China, came to the U.S. to study at Auburn, then to New York, and ultimately to Stanford Business School. At some point, she met Gu’s father, who is sometimes referred to in news stories as a white male who attended Harvard.
Yan Gu was a single mom, who after business school became a venture capitalist specializing in China and U.S. investments, bridging east and west. She’s been successful enough to raise her daughter in the exclusive Sea Cliff area of San Francisco and send her to the private University High ($57,000 a year), where Eileen was good enough to score a reported 1580 on her SATs and earn admission to Stanford. But the younger Gu has all that on hold as she spent the last year traveling the world as an international model and freestyle skier.
“Freestyle” is the nice way to refer to what used to be called a “hot-dogging” show-off skier. Now it’s a modern skill. It means Eileen Gu does the double and triple spins and flips that snowboarders do, but on a pair of skis. Currently, she’s considered the best in the world in the freestyle halfpipe and slope-style events and a favorite for gold.
But not for her country. Her mother’s country.
Eileen Gu–a/k/a Gu Ailing–is the Asian American competing for China.
This is a bit unprecedented. Usually people who join the Olympic teams of their ancestral forebears do so because it’s the only way to stamp their ticket to the games. When your own country’s dance card is filled, you find a way through your ethnic heritage.
There are a number of them. Ice skater Zhu Yi, born in Los Angeles, skating for China, comes to mind. I had an Asian American Filipino friend, a wealthy lawyer in the 1980s who was an Olympic luger for the Philippines. He was really just a tourist with Olympic rings.
This year, the Philippines has Asa Miller, a 22-year old downhill skier. Born in Portland. Skiing for the Philippines. He barely qualified for the event. He’s lucky to have a country to ski for, thanks to his Philippine mother.
And while it’s great he got to carry the Philippine flag at the opening ceremonies last week, Miller is no threat to medal. His presence at the Olympics is his reward.
And so are most of the other motherland participants. Olympic gold is not normally their destiny.
Gu is another matter entirely.
In January at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix, she previewed the Olympics by demolishing her competition in the freeski halfpipe. She was five points ahead of her closest rival, and a full ten points ahead of any Americans. She could win that event and as many as three freestyle skiing medals for America, right?
Not if her Tiger Mom has a say.
Yan Gu won’t talk to the media if there are any questions about politics. Nothing about Uyghurs. Peng Shuai. Nothing. And she wants a final review of the piece before it’s printed. No self-respecting media org would go along with that. So Yan Gu is never on the record. No one is going to mess up what must be a sweet deal with China to set up her daughter as the winter sports sensation of the entire country.
As the Washington Post reported, China normally requires its nationals give up any other passports they hold. The implication is that Eileen has renounced her American citizenship to skate for China. But Eileen Gu’s name does not appear to be on the list of Americans who have given up their citizenship, according to the Post. And Yan Gu declined to answer questions about her daughter’s passport.
None of it may be a problem as long as Eileen Gu keeps delivering on her gold medal style. The Chinese like her supermodel looks and her winning ways. And now China is big on developing alliances with major sports purveyors like the NBA and the International Olympic Committee. In Eileen Gu, the country has a freestyle skiing superstar who gives modern China’s youth a model of excellence to call their own.
OLYMPIC BLUR TO CORPORATE BLUR—THE FALLOUT?
But beyond sports there’s still that blur.
Americans may be wondering about Gu’s loyalty, but does it mean they’ll soon be wondering about the loyalty of all Asian Americans?
Here’s an unfortunate coincidence. Last week, NBC News in an exclusive with FBI Director Christopher Wray reported on the rise of Chinese espionage in technology and corporate trade secrets in the U.S.
Wray said there is a new “China-related counterintelligence investigation about every 12 hours.”
He estimated there are “over 2,000 of those investigations.”
And he added: “There is no country that presents a broader, more severe threat to our innovation, our ideas, our economic security than China does.”
Wray distinguished between people of Chinese heritage and Chinese descent and the real culprits–the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.
And what could all that mean for Asian Americans, specifically, Chinese Americans?
“We don’t investigate anyone based on race, or ethnicity, or constitutionally protected activity,” Wray said on the NBC Evening News. “In fact, in many of the cases, Chinese Americans are some of the people most victimized by the Chinese government’s tactics.”
Sounds like he means some Chinese Americans’ loyalties have been manipulated by China’s corporate spies. But America’s trade secrets are one thing. What about our homegrown Olympic medalists?
And that brings us back to the willingness of Eileen Gu.
There is no doubt the biracial Asian American is being used by China–how exactly, only her mother Yan Gu knows for sure. Perhaps it’s all positive, and Eileen’s the perfect athletic ambassador Xi and the Chinese government want her to be. With her fresh-faced innocence, Eileen Gu could be the modern Olympic bridge between East and West.
But China is also known to be ruthless. Tennis champion Peng Shuai, who kept out of sight for months after making sexual assault allegations against a high-ranking government official, reportedly resurfaced just this weekend to talk to the International Olympic Committee. To convince them that things are just fine in China?
There’s Chloe Zhao, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, who was castigated for making remarks that were seen as disparaging by Chinese officials.
And then there are the Uyghur human rights abuses that I talked about in a previous column. Uyghur Americans have not been able to contact relatives who have been in re-education camps since 2017.
Eileen Gu and her mom tread carefully. They just want to promote youth sports in China, and then sign lucrative deals with U.S. companies that want to do business with China. The Gus are playing both countries to their advantage. Are they any different than McDonald’s wanting the golden arches in Beijing?
Maybe. But Gu is Olympic gold or maybe just gold.
Perhaps that’s s all good, but only as long as Eileen Gu, the innocent world class freestyle skier, can keep doing her 900 degree twists and turns in the air.
Once she lands, all bets are off.
Eileen Gu likes to give the pat answer that she’s American when she’s in America, and she’s Chinese when she’s in China.
She may think she can play both sides when she feels like it. But when dealing with China, you are never quite as free as you think.
Not as free as you are on an Olympic run, when you’re upside down in the air on your skis.
Recent history shows you can’t aspire to be that free in China.
Is Gu in goeey Olympic waters? I’ll talk about it on my “Emil Amok’s Takeout–The Livestream” at 2pm Pacific on my <em>YouTube</em> channel, <em>Facebook</em>, and <em>Twitter</em>, and recorded on <em>www.amok.com</em>.