Eileen Feng Gu is receiving harsh criticism for choosing to represent China and not the U.S, her country of birth, at the Winter Games.
This controversy has sparked many opinions from viewers, athletes, and news outlets, all of which either applaud Gu’s achievements or label her a “traitor” for representing a country embroiled in a human rights controversy.
The main concern: human rights or the national flag?
There are mixed reasons as to why Gu is facing backlash, some induced by her not representing her birthplace, whilst some on her representing a country practicing inhumane treatment against the Uyghur minority. One of many individuals is famous talk show host Bill Maher who, on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher, suggested Gu’s choice for representing became a symbolic for China as a one-up on the U.S.
Uyghurs are China’s largest ethnic minority group with about 12 million Uyghurs, a large majority of them Muslim, residing in Xinjiang. An article from the BBC showcases that from 2015 to 2020, satellite imaging has shown fast construction of “re-education camps,” in which there is likely genocide and crimes against humanity.
Many worried about ethical concerns for this year’s Olympics to be even hosted in China mainly for this issue, but the Games continued anyways. For this same ethical concern, many following Gu’s controversy expressed their thoughts on Twitter and also undermined the gold medals she has won this year.
On the other hand, there are some who raise concern that the gold medals Gu has won this year should have belonged to the U.S., not China. Much more patriotic individuals simply have expressed their distaste for the Olympian and only used the Uyghur conflict as extra reasoning to condemn her choices.
What was Gu’s end goal?
Although there has been much criticism against Gu, she expressed in an interview her gratitude to both the U.S. and China for shaping her into a better person. Gu also said she wants to use sports as “a force for unity” and also something that can be used to “foster interconnection between countries.”
As far as Gu’s self-representation goes, she has no intention of condoning the ethical issues present in China. Gu also saw that China had a much larger population and wanted to give inspiration to a larger population. Even if she had reached to aspire a small fraction of the immensely large population of China in the sport of skiing, she says she will be content.
What do other people have to say?
With large amounts of backlash, there have also been large amounts of support for Gu and her decision to simply achieve her dreams. Those following the skier have shared their thoughts on Twitter and expressed their support for the athlete’s achievements and mission to inspire.
Drew Chelmowski, who was born in the United States, and is now working for aircraft maintenance for the military in Italy, says athlethes should be free to choose whoever and whatever they want to represent.
“If someone has dual citizenship through different countries then it’s their right to choose to represent one or the other,” said Chelmowski over Zoom. He adds that even though his occupation might give the notion of people expecting a more patriotic response from him, Chelmoswki believes titles should not restrict one’s ability to freely speak about how they feel.
“I also don’t think it’s fair to base a minority of actions of a country and let it speak for the whole representation.”
Chelmowski says that regardless if the athlete is from Canada, America, or even China, they have the right to subscribe to whatever they want to represent and in Gu’s case, she wants to promote inspiration, not genocide.
Victoria Song, who was born in China, Dalian, and is now an international student in Canada, is new to practicing skiing but has kept up with Gu’s performance in the Olympics. Song says that the Games are not just about the flag, but also a showcase of a person’s personal achievements.
“After I watched some competition, I believe personal achievement is more important than national representation,” said Song over a live meeting on Instagram.
“Our goal, yes, is to support the national team, but it’s also about learning and growing from each other.”
What does this mean for athletes?
Criticism will follow regardless of one’s actions, but there will also be support for specific actions. Athletes can look at Gu and see her participating in the Olympics for her mother and to give aspiration, and they can do the same. Or, willingly choose to support the sport with national patriotism. Whichever choice is made, in the end, it will spark a difference in opinion regardless.