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DON’T BE AN UGLY AMERICAN — LET EILEEN GU LIVE HER LIFE
She lives in her native U.S. and competes for China, which makes her a traitor (and worse) on these shores, but as the ski sensation bids for three gold, who are we — in America — to deny her freedom?
If we remember nothing else about the most forgettable Olympiad of our lifetime, we should behold Eileen Gu. She has presented a diplomatic panacea bigger than any dictator, smarter than any geopolitical crossfire and bolder than all attempts to turn the Winter Games into an ideology war between the United States and China.
Because she was born in America to a mother who is Chinese, she had two options as a freestyle skiing sensation. She could race in red, white and blue for her native country, where she lives in San Francisco with her mother and grandmother and will attend Stanford next fall. Or, she could honor her Chinese ancestry, return to the country where she spent her formative summers and compete in Beijing colors: red and white.
She basically chose both options, heavens to Tucker Carlson — racing for China and apparently remaining a U.S. citizen, though China doesn’t allow dual citizenship and she won’t say if she still carries a U.S. passport. Defying what many will insist is her inherent responsibility as an American, from the first day she repeated the Pledge of Allegiance, Gu is stepping out to compete for herself, declaring her national competitive allegiance more out of bureaucratic necessity than preference for a particular way of life. This is about her independence, her free will, her well-thought-out wish to enjoy and even unify two antithetical cultures.
“I definitely feel as though I’m just as American as I am Chinese,” she said. “I’m American when I’m in the U.S. and Chinese when I’m in China, and I’ve been outspoken about my gratitude to both the U.S. and China for making me the person that I am.’’
And if you’re an especially ugly American who doesn’t appreciate her stance and rants like hell when Fox News devours her story — or maybe turns to social media and calls her a traitor or meaner expressions of hatred — Eileen Gu wants you to know something else as she celebrates her victory in the women’s big air event.
She doesn’t care what you think.
“Here’s the thing: I’m not trying to keep anyone happy. I’m an 18-year-old girl trying to live my best life,’’ she said. “Like, I’m having a great time. It doesn’t matter if other people are happy or not because I feel as though I’m doing my best enjoying the entire process and using my voice to create as much positive change as I can for the voices who will listen to me in an area that is personal and relevant to myself.
“I know I have a good heart and I know my reasons for making the decisions I do are based on a greater common interest and something that I feel like is for the greater good. So if other people don’t really believe that’s where I’m coming from, then that just reflects they don’t have the empathy to empathize with a good heart, perhaps because they don’t share the same kind of morals that I do. In that sense, I’m not going to waste my time trying to placate people who are one, uneducated, and two, probably never going to experience the kind of joy and gratitude and, just, love that I have the great fortune to experience on a daily basis. So in that sense, I feel it’s a lot easier to block the hate now. If people don’t believe me and people don’t like me, then that’s their loss. They’re never going to know what it feels like to win the Olympics.’’
This isn’t some youthful attention-grabbing whim, obviously. And Gu could win two more events, which would place her among the brightest stars of these Games and bring more attention to her unique duality. Immensely popular in China for rejecting the U.S., she’s a hot trending topic on Weibi, a social-media site, where Chinese fans know her as Gu Ailing and appreciate that she is fluent in Mandarin. They wouldn’t be as nice if she had fallen on the slopes, but never would they subject her to the mocking that awaited another U.S.-born athlete competing for China, figure skater Zhu Yi, when she cried after flopping in her Olympic event. Gu is beyond failure, in China’s eyes.
Answering post-race questions in English and Chinese, she accepted glowing praise from local journalists, one who asked about her favorite local fare. “I have eaten a lot of pork and chive dumplings the last few days and I really look forward to trying some Peking duck,” she said.
Her 2019 decision was largely about money, knowing her growing Chinese profile as an athlete and fashion model would lead to bigger endorsement deals — Louis Vuitton, Red Bull and Bank of China, among them — than she would receive in America, where winter sports athletes come and go every four years. Who are we to criticize her for prioritizing fortunes when prominent American sports stars, including LeBron James, eagerly exploit the Chinese marketplace? We can assail China for its horrific human-rights record, as I often have, but should a teenaged athlete sacrifice her one opportunity to capitalize on athletic excellence because China is Communist and American is not?
I never would wear the Chinese colors. But as a fellow American, who am I to deny Gu her freedom of choice?
“I don’t feel as though I’m, you know, taking advantage of one or the other because both have been incredibly supportive of me and continue to be supportive of me,’’ she said. “Because they understand that my mission is to use sport as a force for unity, to use it as a form to foster interconnection between countries and not use it as a divisive force. So that benefits everyone, and if you disagree with that, I feel like it’s someone else’s problem.”
It certainly wasn’t her problem at Big Air Shougang, a converted steel mill that could host history in more than one form. Gu executed the first double cork 1620 of her career — spinning 4 1/2 times and rotating twice off-axis 20 feet off the ground. Who knew she also could bid for a Nobel Peace Prize?
“I want all the girls to break their boundaries,” she said, in Chinese. “I want them to think if Eileen can do it, I can do it.”
Back in America, her homeland, Carlson was calling Gu a “tool for (China), a genocidaire, communist, human rights violator,’’ continuing, “This girl is 18. You know, young people do stupid things. But there should be collective revulsion as we watch this. We shouldn’t allow people to easily betray their own country, should we?”
Asked specifically about the criticism, which has included threats, that’s when Eileen Gu fired her own insult at the Carlsons of the world. “Uneducated,’’ she said, adding she wouldn’t “waste my time.’’
If only the Americans who hate her would heed her.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.