Risk-taker Eileen Gu makes China an Olympic force on snow | Sports

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ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Eileen Gu was 8 years old when she started teaching budding young daredevils how to backflips on trampolines during her summer visits to China.

“At the time, I was basically meeting the whole Chinese skiing community at once,” Gu said. “There just weren’t many people there.”

In the delicate and sometimes unpleasant discussion of why this 18 year old force of nature freeski who was born and raised in San Francisco is competing for her mother’s homeland of China in the Beijing Olympics, the simplest answer might just be hidden in this vignette.

Not so long ago, hardly anyone skied in China. These days, with the Olympics presenting a whole new world of winter sports in the country of 1.4 billion people, more people do. Girls, long marginalized, including in the sporting sense here, could really use a template. Gu thinks she might be just the person.

“In the United States, growing up, I had so many amazing idols to look up to,” she said in an extensive interview with The Associated Press last winter. “But in China, I feel like there’s a lot less. I would have a much bigger impact in China than in the United States, and that’s ultimately why I made this decision.

But there are no simple answers to one facet of a discussion about China-US relations, and why an athlete with options might choose one over another. During this time, Many things have changed in China in the 2.5 years since Gu made his decision – and how the rest of the world perceives it.

China human rights record sparked a diplomatic boycott and became a focal point of the Games themselves. The well-being of tennis champion Peng Shuai is a constant concern. COVID-19 protocols have turned this Olympics into a closed affair filled with strict testing protocols. Critics say that by competing for China, not the United States, Gu is, at a minimum, tacitly supporting the Communist government’s policies and turning her back on the team that helped her rise through the ranks.

“There is something endearing and noble about her interest in promoting her sport in the most populous country in the world and in presenting herself as a strong female role model,” said Chad Carlson, who teaches sport and society. at Hope College in the United States. “Every action has consequences too. It’s not a usual cross-country route. Going from an American athlete to a Chinese athlete is just not that common.

Due to the baggage surrounding the decision, Gu has kept his media availabilities to a minimum this winter and kept them tightly focused on the mission ahead – skiing. Thursday she did post an essay on instagramexplaining his decision.

“I have always said that my goal is to spread the sport I love globally to children, especially girls, and to change the culture of sport to one that is driven by passion,” he said. she writes in part.

While chatting with the AP at last year’s Winter X Games, she also spoke about her choice to compete for China – a choice she began receiving criticism almost the moment she did it.

“I got a lot of hate, a lot of people say, ‘It’s about loyalty and which country she loves the most,'” Gu said. “It really isn’t. It was a really big difference between the impact I could have and what I could do with skiing.

Another thing it definitely wasn’t was finding an easier path to the Olympics.

Gu had pride of place on the US freestyle team when she made her decision. She won gold medals in halfpipe and slopestyle at the 2021 Winter X Games and a bronze medal in big air. Since the start of this season, she has won four halfpipe contests, one in big air and finished second in her only start in slopestyle. It’s inconceivable to think she could be the first action sports athlete to win Olympic gold in three separate events, starting with the big air final on February 8.

“She’s unbeatable when she even lands her ‘B’ or ‘C’ level run right now,” said USA coach Mike Riddle. “If you’re trying to bet against her, that’s a bad call.”

All of this has more than put Gu on the map in a country that loves its sports stars. Former NBA center Yao Ming is still a national hero. Hurdler Liu Xiang won a gold medal in 2004 that made him the headliner of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

At last count, Gu – whose Chinese name is Gu Ailing – had 1.34 million followers on Chinese social media platform Weibo. She’s racking up sponsors — at least 23 by the AP’s tally — and finding support in a country that has won a grand total of 13 gold medals in Winter Olympics history, but only one out of snow.

“I just want to watch three shows for the upcoming Winter Olympics,” Zhang Dongwei, a 47-year-old Internet technology blogger living in Xiamen, recently posted on Weibo. “First, the opening ceremony. Second, Gu Ailing. Third, the closing ceremony.

Regardless of how she fares over the next two weeks, her future upon returning from China looks bright.

She’s done covers on In Style and vogue magazines. “I love the sound of camera shutters,” she said.

She is expected to head to Stanford later this year, with a possible major in international studies in sight.

She’s a strong musician, and something like a ham at heart. “When you see the piano at the airport, and there’s a kid sitting there playing, that’s me,” she said.

She speaks well in two languages. Her command of Mandarin is the result of being raised in part by her grandmother, who does not speak English.

She’s also, no doubt, on her way to getting rich, which could be the case regardless of which country she wears this month. It blows a hole in the argument that she made the move simply for the money. But the decision was always more complex than that.

“She steps in because she says she wants to be a role model for young girls, but when it comes to social issues related to American criticism of China, she doesn’t step in to address those particular issues,” Carlson said. “It’s unique because in the current climate we find ourselves in, we have a lot of athletes who are putting themselves into it voluntarily without even being prompted.”

Instead, the social issue closest to her heart is trying to help girls connect with sports. Anyone who thinks she just arrived at this party might be pointed to the Adidas Advertising which features a speech she gave in seventh grade on women’s equity in sport.

“Some people retire with 10 gold medals, then they’re 30 and don’t know what to do,” Gu said. “But I want to be able to have those medals and feel like I’ve changed someone’s life, or changed the sport, or introduced the sport to a country where there was none before.

AP sportswriter Pat Graham and AP researcher Si Chen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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