Eileen Gu, 18, was crowned the winner in the Olympics’ first-ever Big Air Freeski event after landing a double cork 1620 on Monday. In the daring event, skiers perform tricks in the air after shooting down a 60-foot-long ramp.
Gu, who is estimated by the Beijing News to have earned $15 million in 2021, is currently the third-highest-paid female athlete in the world, trailing only tennis players Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. She has contracts with companies like Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, and Victoria’s Secret, and works as a supermodel when she’s not on the slopes.
The secret behind her massive wealth is that Gu switched from representing the United States to representing China in 2019 at the age of 15. That opened the gates to a market with few winter-sport athletes with whom to compete. It also gave her the opportunity to possibly receive payments from the communist government — which is known to reward athletes, especially Olympians, who succeed in representing the country.
Gu has become a sensation in China since switching her allegiance. She recently appeared on the covers of the Chinese editions of Vogue, Marie Claire, and Elle. The sportswear company Anta even set up an Eileen Gu theme park in a Shanghai mall. Canada’s Globe and Mail reports that she is now making $20 million a year off of endorsements from Chinese companies. On Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, she has over 2.6 million followers. After she won gold, the entire site crashed because so many of her fans were rushing to gush over her victory.
Of course, while the switch made her wealthier, it also made her a propagandist tool for an authoritarian and repressive regime. The same week that she made the announcement, she appeared with Chinese President Xi Jinping as he addressed Chinese winter athletes and told them that their success was vital to “the nation’s great rejuvenation.” And while Gu trumpets herself as a powerful voice for racial justice united in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, she refuses to utter a peep about the Chinese government’s genocide against the Uyghur people. That is not to mention the forced abortions, sterilizations, massive surveillance, repression of religious freedom, and much more carried out by the Chinese regime. (Her publicist once told the Economist that she would not do an interview with them unless they agreed to allow her team to review the article prior to publication to ensure that there was nothing in there negative towards the Chinese regime. “If [Eileen] participates in an article that has two paragraphs critical of China and human rights, that would put her in jeopardy over there. One thing and a career is ruined,” her publicist, American Tom Yaps, told freelance reporter Brook Larmer.)
Gu has repeatedly refused to answer pointed questions about whether or not she has renounced her U.S. citizenship. Olympic rules require that an athlete have citizenship in the country they compete for, and China does not allow dual citizenship. But there is some speculation that China might have granted her a special exemption. Either that or she just refuses to admit she treacherously renounced her country.
Gu’s newfound allegiance to China is part of a deliberate propaganda campaign by the Communist Party. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, China won nine medals, including one gold, while the U.S. came away with 23 medals, including nine gold medals. Communist officials were embarrassed by the country’s 14th-place ranking in the medal count as they felt it detracted from their efforts to make China the global superpower.
The Chinese government thus set out to recruit athletes from foreign countries to compete for the Chinese flag in the 2022 winter Olympics, which they would be hosting. They concentrated their efforts on athletes with Chinese ancestry. Gu is the crowning jewel of that recruitment effort. Alysa Liu, a figure skater from California, was another athlete they approached, but she rejected the offer. But the Chinese found more success with figure skater Zhu Yi, who is also from California. Unlike Gu, who is considered the best freestyle skier in the world, Zhu probably wouldn’t have made it to the Olympics if she’d had to compete against Americans for a spot. And Zhu’s Olympics has thus far been an utter disaster. She scored 47.03 in the team short program after falling, crashing into a wall, and failing to complete a jump. Compare that to Russia Olympic Committee’s Kamila Valieva’s 90.18. As a result, Zhu received fierce and abusive comments from Chinese viewers who were displeased with her performance.
Gu is defiant about her decision to join forces with the Chinese regime. She brushes aside any suggestion that she’s become walking propaganda for an evil regime by mocking anyone who says it. Speaking at her press conference after her gold-medal win, she said, “I’m not going to waste my time trying to placate people who are 1) uneducated, and 2) probably are 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 yeah, if people don’t believe me and if people don’t like me, then that’s their loss. They’re never gonna win the Olympics. So.”
She goes on, saying that she has a “good heart,” so anyone who criticizes her decision “does not have the empathy to empathize with a good heart, perhaps because they don’t share the same kind of morals that I do.”
She repeatedly uses the same line that her goal is to use sport “to foster connection between countries.”
While Gu was 15 when she joined forces with China and may have been pressured by her mother to do so, as an adult, she is capitalizing on her role as a representative for the Chinese regime and boldly dismissing as uneducated anyone who questions that role. (Gu went to a $41,000-a-year private high school in San Francisco and plans to start classes at Stanford University in the fall.)
Gu still has two more opportunities, half-pipe and slopestyle, to bring home more gold for her dear leader, Xi Jinping, and perhaps earn a big payout from the communist regime.