Eileen Gu is “a giant projection of Chinese soft power”, says Brook Larmer in The Economist’s 1843 magazine. The 18-year-old skier won a gold medal for China this week in Beijing – a huge deal for a superpower that’s won only 13 Winter Olympic golds in its history. She is now a national sensation: her face is on every billboard and magazine cover, and her millions of Chinese fans briefly crashed the social media platform Weibo as they celebrated her victory.
But in the eyes of Americans, Gu should be skiing for Team USA. She had an “all-American upbringing” in a multimillion-dollar house in San Francisco. With her American father not on the scene, she was raised by her Chinese mother (a venture capitalist) and grandmother. She started her career in the US freestyle ski team but in 2019 – still only 15 – she realised she had to decide which of the two superpowers to represent. After months of “agonising” – and an in-person meeting with President Xi Jinping – she made her choice.
In many respects Gu embodies the “Faustian bargain China has made with its people”. Her decision has certainly “amplified” her wealth and fame: she’s now the third-highest earning female athlete in the world, bringing in more than $15m a year from sponsors. But she has also become a “showpiece” for a repressive autocratic regime in exchange for her silence on human rights and other hot-button issues. As her American agent says: one word out of place and her career will be “ruined”.