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With the Winter Olympics in full swing in Beijing, two athletes, skier Eileen Gu, and figure skater Zhu Yi, have been trending in two different social media spheres.
Both Californian-born athletes have been receiving intense backlash for changing their nationalities to compete for China.
Gu, an 18-year-old first-year Stanford student and San Francisco native, made history as the youngest-ever Olympic freestyle ski champion. Most Americans have been celebrating online, but conservative commentators are in an uproar over her decision to “switch sides” and win the gold for China.
“It’s ungrateful for her to turn her back on the country that not just raised her, but turned her into a world-class skier,” a right-wing podcaster said in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. “I hope Eileen Gu likes living in China, what a traitor. Born in San Francisco, CA snd competes for Chinese money. Get out!” wrote someone on Twitter.
Gu’s response to the haters? “Cry ab it,” she wrote on TikTok after a commenter asked why she didn’t compete for the US.
Zhu Yi, also known as Beverly Zhu, is a 19-year-old Angeleno who also gave up her US citizenship to compete.
“so so so honored to be representing Team China at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics ✨,” she wrote on Instagram on Jan. 28. “Especially after having a couple rough years, I’m so grateful for those who helped me push past the negative thoughts and injuries; helping me grow throughout this journey.”
But the negativity was just getting started. Chinese social media platforms were ablaze with a now-deleted viral theory that she used nepotism to qualify for the team over a Chinese-born skater. Others blasted Zhu for her inability to speak fluent Mandarin while representing China.
“Is she really patriotic?” one commented. “How is one person’s dream bigger than the country? It’s ass backward.” The criticisms came from all sides, with someone commenting on her TikTok this week: “Enjoy China. The bastion of freedom, right? Turncoat.”
Then when Zhu fell during competition, #ZhuYiMistake, #ShameOnZhuYi and #ZhuYiFellDown began trending on Weibo.
The social media reaction to the athletes changing nationalities surprised William Tran, vice president of the Pasadena Figure Skating Club and a figure skating judge.
“It’s completely within the rules, and something many sports are used to,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The United States has had incredible athletes from other countries represent our team, and many athletes have found success representing others.”
Zhu and Gu aren’t the only foreign-born Olympians representing China. Jake Chelios, the white son of National Hockey League star Chris Chelios, will be playing as Jie Ke Kai Liao Si on the Chinese men’s hockey team. Chelios, who is from Illinois and played hockey for a few years in China, told the Associated Press that his new name was “cool” and part of the experience of playing abroad.
“Since I’ve been over here, everything’s kind of new for me, and that’s the exciting part about playing overseas,” he said. “I know two or three words [in Chinese], but I took six years of Spanish in high school. I couldn’t even learn that, so I didn’t even try.”
Former NHL goaltender Jeremy Smith, a white man from Michigan, (competing as Jie Rui Mi Shi Mi Si) will also be competing for China. Most of the roster for China’s women’s hockey team shares heritage in the country, but have been imported from Canada and the United States.
But none of them have had the backlash experienced by Gu and Zhu.
Nationality changes have been occurring since the 1970s, Tran said, allowing athletes to compete on a world stage with more international opportunity that they may not otherwise have. “It’s not always that you’re giving up one citizenship for the other,” he said. “Some nations don’t allow for dual citizenship, but many do.”
One Chinese American user wrote on Twitter, “We'll always be accepted as a fellow compatriot by Chinese people as long as we maintain cultural ties, while Yanks will never see us as true Americans. Haters are simply proving us right.”
I find this to be the most honest part of the discourse. “As long as we maintain cultural ties'' is part of the largest criticism against Zhu, whose ability to speak Mandarin fluently has been hotly contested, while people on social media have stayed fairly quiet about a player like Chelios’s open disinterest in learning the language because he has no Chinese heritage.
But maintaining cultural ties for children of naturalized citizens in the US is not always a matter of choice. Holidays such as Lunar New Year are not yet federally recognized, meaning most states do not implement school holidays or time off work. Generational poverty and difficult living conditions for some families mean paying for language school and having regular cultural education is both a financial and time-scarce burden. And after all of that, choosing to maintain cultural ties can be dangerous, resulting in hate or violence. Fully embracing one’s own identity hinges on conditions people cannot always meet — not by desire, but circumstance.
Of course, there are other factors. Gu achieved a historic win, while Zhu did not. Skating has long been the most-followed sport at the Winter Olympics, so its athletes will tend to draw more buzz (Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu may not have won any medals but his outfits won TikTok). And the long-brewing tension between the US and China makes nationality change a more politically sensitive issue than, for example, one skier’s adjustment from Britain to Jamaica.
The jump to criticize Zhu’s and Gu’s individual patriotism toward either the US or China feels like it was never about nationality change. Instead, the online chatter seems like an opportunity to use young women’s actions to tell others who can and can’t claim identities they were born into, and to brand certain nationalities by a set of baseless rules that only further a particularly hateful perspective.
There is intense pressure on these athletes to win. Figure skating costs anywhere between $35,000 to $50,000 per year, while alpine skiing can cost up to $30,000. “Most of these sports gain most media and fan attention during the Olympics. It’s a once in a four year opportunity to be showcased,” said Tran. “If you keep that in mind, you might understand why someone might make sacrifices in order to compete there.”
Are we really going to bully young women for wanting to do well? If I were an overachieving teen desperate to compete, I’d consider changing my nationality too.
Or as Gu said in a press conference about the criticism: "If people don't like me, that's their loss — they'll never win the Olympics.”