Triumph and Tribulation for China’s Foreign-born Winter Athletes

By Alistair Baker-Brian, February 9, 2022

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The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are well under way, and we’ve all no doubt had some favorite moments so far.  

One particular topic which has already garnered a lot of attention has been the different reactions to China’s numerous foreign-born athletes. 

This topic can barely be mentioned without talking about freestyle skiing superstar Eileen Gu, known by her Chinese name Gu Ailing. 

Born in the United States to an American father and Chinese mother, in 2018 Gu announced that she would compete for China. And she’s been quite an addition to the team. 

On February 8, she took gold in the Women’s Freeski Big Air. She’s also tipped as a medal hopeful in the Half-pipe and Slopestyle Freestyle Skiing competitions. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gu has been embraced by many in China. Retailer JD.com, China Mobile and a number of other Chinese brands have capitalized on her popularity by giving her lucrative sponsorship deals. 

Following her gold-medal winning performance, Gu was asked at a press conference about how she balanced keeping everyone from both China and the United States happy. She responded by saying, “I’m not trying to keep anyone happy. I’m an 18 year old out here living my best life ... if people don’t believe me and people don’t like me, that’s their loss but they’re never gonna win the Olympics.”

Contrast all that with the situation of US-born Team China figure skater Zhu Yi, also known by her English name Beverly Zhu. 

The 19-year-old from Los Angeles gave up her US citizenship in 2018 to join Team China. However, her Winter Olympic story has been more tribulation than triumph.

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A tearful Zhu Yi is consoled by her coach after a lacklustre figure skating performance. Image via Weibo/@围观冬奥会

During her debut performance on Sunday, February 6, Zhu failed to land several jumps. Things didn’t get better during her second performance the following day during which she fell twice. 

The hashtag “Zhuyi fell down” was trending on Weibo; it now appears to have been all but removed by the social media platform.

As well as criticizing her performance, many netizens also criticized her supposedly poor grasp of the Chinese language. 

Former editor in chief of Global Times Hu Xijin addressed in a Weibo post groundless accusations that Zhu was not selected for the Winter Games based on her ability, but instead because of her father, a high-ranking scientist.

Hu said he hoped Chinese netizens making such claims would “reign in their imagination.”

Zhu Yi received support from none other than Eileen Gu herself, with Gu telling the press that “errors and pressure are part of the competition” and that she hoped people would “understand (Zhu’s) situation.” 

Freestyle skiing and figure skating are not the only Winter Olympic sports in which foreign-born Chinese athletes are making headlines; China’s 25-member men’s ice hockey squad is made up of 15 foreign-born players, including 11 from Canada, three from the United States and one from Russia. 

As the host nation, China automatically qualifies for the ice hockey tournament. However, as Reuters reports, China’s place became uncertain after the International Ice Hockey Federation expressed concern in September 2021 regarding the “team’s quality,” adding that its participation “would hinge in part on player eligibility rules.” 

It turns out that the mostly foreign-born Chinese team does in fact meet said eligibility rules. The addition of foreign-born players coupled with the lack of NHL players in the Winter Olympics means that China might just pull out a few surprises in their group, which includes ice hockey giants Canada and the United States, as well as 2018 silver medalists Germany. 

With the men’s ice hockey set to start on February 9 (as this article goes to press), we’ll soon find out if China’s foreign investment in ice hockey will pay off. 

READ MORE: Beijing 2022 Bluffer's Guide: Ice Hockey

As those in China and abroad react to the triumph and tribulation surrounding Team China’s foreign-born winter athletes, don’t expect discussion around this topic to die down anytime soon. And don’t be surprised if Team China includes more foreign-born athletes in future Games. 


[Cover image via Weibo/@娱情舆理]

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