Eileen Gu’s praise breaks Chinese social media

Two American-born athletes competing for China. Two starkly different reactions from Chinese social media to their performances at the Winter Olympics.

As freestyle skier Eileen Gu won her gold medal in the big air competition on Tuesday, praise for the San Franciscan skier literally overwhelmed the Chinese internet.

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Sina Weibo, the gigantic social network similar to Twitter, has found its servers temporarily overloaded, according to Chinese media. Of the platform’s top 10 trending topics, five were dedicated to worshiping the 18-year-old champion.

“Gu Ailing is a great young lady, isn’t she? was a trending topic, referencing his Chinese name.

“Dad was at Harvard, mom at Peking University, Stanford, grandma was an athlete. She’s beautiful and classy,” said one post that has been recirculated 86,000 times.

It was a stark contrast to the reception received by another US-born athlete competing for China, figure skater Zhu Yi, who days earlier had been attacked on social media after crashing into a wall during the team event. Zhu finished last in the short program and China placed fifth in the competition, which was won by the Russian team, with the United States taking silver and Japan taking bronze.

Weibo said it suspended 93 accounts and deleted 300 abusive posts about the Olympian, who was born in California to Chinese parents and won a U.S. national novice title as Beverly Zhu. Messages mocked her for her downfall while others criticized her for not being fluent in Chinese.

Gold medalist Eileen Gu of China celebrates during the medal ceremony for women’s freestyle skiing big air at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing.
(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

“There is no next time,” one Weibo user wrote, alongside a video of Zhu crying at the end of his performance. “How shameful.” This comment has been liked over 45,000 times.

“Go back to America,” read another comment, along with an American flag emoji.

The anger towards Zhu was likely fueled by an episode a few weeks earlier when she qualified to compete in the Olympics.

She beat two other skaters for the last place on the Chinese team, which many fans said should have gone to another young skater, Chen Hongyi, who had more competition experience. It caused enough controversy at the time that the Chinese Olympic Figure Skating Selection Committee issued a statement defending the decision.

As Zhu’s online criticism skyrocketed, Gu came to her teammate’s defense. “Mistakes and pressure are part of the sport,” Gu told a press conference after his victory.

The two athletes face off at a politically difficult time, with one foot in each of the two countries which have clashed over a variety of issues, from the economy to the confinement of China’s ethnic Uyghur minority in the western region of the Xinjiang at the origins of the covid19 pandemic.

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Although Gu’s decision to compete for China has garnered outsized attention, what she and Zhu are doing is quite common in the international sports arena. Zhu renounced his American citizenship in order to compete for China in Beijing. It is unknown if Gu did the same; she has never publicly commented on the issue of her citizenship.

A sign of today’s highly polarized political climate, Gu and Zhu have come under fire from conservative political figures and right-wing media in the United States for their shift in sports affiliation.

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