At the Olympics, Athletes Torn between China and the US

The Winter Olympics in Beijing had its share of controversy and debate. Notably, it was the stage for a new series of verbal sparring matches between China and the U.S. Aside from the tensions generated on the global level, the antagonism between the two superpowers has unusual repercussions for Americans of Chinese descent, whose identity is mixed.

The specific cases vary, as do their situations, but from Eileen Gu to Nathan Chen and including Zhu Yi, these Olympic athletes are the objects of a great deal of attention and commentary ranging from praise to threats. Here are their portraits, caught between the American eagle and the Chinese dragon.

High Profile Case

Eileen Gu probably gets the most media attention. The young woman born in the United States 18 years ago chose to represent China, her mother’s homeland, in the Beijing games. And she did so successfully, earning medals in free-style skiing. Called Gu Ailing in Chinese, the Chinese public welcomed her with open arms just as much as her sponsors did, making her an icon. But given that the Chinese government refuses to recognize dual nationality, unlike the International Olympic Committee, Gu had to give up her American citizenship. This decision was highly criticized in the United States, where the athlete even received death threats. She was criticized for her “betrayal” and for being lured by money. It is true that, unlike in the United States, where many Olympic athletes, even those with gold medals, remain fairly anonymous, that is not the case for Gu. The athlete, who speaks Mandarin, is signing lucrative advertising contracts, representing no fewer than 23 Chinese brands. Far from being a bridge between the two countries and cultures, the young athlete, despite her intentions, symbolizes the tension between the two powers – idolized in China, vilified in the United States.

Yet, Gu is not the only athlete born in the United States who chose to represent China in the Olympics. Still, not all of them were so enthusiastically received by their new compatriots. The case of figure skater Zhu Yi is particularly notable. After she entered the competition in the Beijing games, the California-born skater fell twice. Her mediocre performance earned her an avalanche of criticism on Chinese social media, especially Weibo. There were so many abusive attacks that Weibo deleted more than 71,000 comments and banned 2,000 accounts of people lashing out at the young woman. Yi, whose athletic performance was disappointing, has not enjoyed the same support from her new countrymen and has not had the same welcome as Gu did.

Under the American Flag

On the other hand, some Chinese American athletes who chose to compete under the American flag also came under criticism — even when they were successful. Nathan Chen, the first American of Asian heritage to win the gold medal in men’s figure skating, paid a price. While his victory in an Olympics where the United States did not win many gold medals did not go unnoticed, a New York Times article nonetheless thought it a good idea to highlight the “overrepresentation” of American skaters of Asian heritage. Vehemently criticized for its racist content, the article nonetheless illustrates a tendency to consider athletes more for their identity than for their performance. If criticism becomes even more vehement when performance declines, Chen’s case reveals an insidious fact – despite his victory, people speak about his identity in ambiguous and controversial terms.

At the moment, diplomatic tensions between China and the United States may explain some of the criticism that these athletes get. People center their attention on the athletes’ mixed heritage as a result of current events. Competing in the Olympics – which has always played on the apparent contradiction between the universalism of a sporting event that brings people together and the glorification of nationalism with anthems, flags, and the counting of medals, – imposes an extra obstacle. In this competition, it seems better not to be of complex and mixed heritage. That is something that brings the risk of torn identity.

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