Eileen Gu – What Does It Mean to Be an American?

Op-Ed by Jack Galloway

BEIJING – US-born Olympic Skier Eileen Gu won the silver medal in women’s slopestyle at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing on Monday, following up her gold medal in the Big Air event last Tuesday. As she rises to international stardom, many have raised questions about why she is competing for China instead of her native United States. 

In the days following her gold medal run, Gu, who also goes by her Chinese name Gu Ailing, received criticism from many Americans about competing for China. Gu’s mother is Chinese, and she spent a significant amount of time in China as a child. However, Gu became a star in the United States. In fact, at age eight, Gu joined the ski team at Northstar, a popular resort in the Lake Tahoe area of California. Gu’s success prompts important considerations of nationalism; what does it mean to be American?

Conceptions of American identity have evolved since our founding. Over the past two and a half centuries, many critical aspects of American identity and personhood were only applied to white males. For over two hundred years, America has had strict and changing definitions of the ethnicities, races, and immigrants that could claim the title ‘American.’ After critical successes in the civil rights era, a consensus formed that American identity should be more inclusive and shouldn’t discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or sexuality. The election of an African American President in 2008 along with a tide shift in LGBQT+ representation in media have been huge stepping stones in the formation of a new American identity. Our current conception of American identity lies in committing to essential values such as equality, justice, and liberty.  

To be clear, the United States government has committed many shameful atrocities that have shown a blatant disregard for our core principles– Jim Crow laws, the unjust invasion of Iraq leading to the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the passage of discriminatory immigration statutes are just a few. Patriotic Americans voiced their dissent which led to the reversal of these policies. However, while our past transgressions are shameful and wrong, our current actions pale in comparison to the brutal repression of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. 

White men can abridge our fundamental values as much as other racial or ethnic groups. For example, southerners’ calls for upholding school segregation and miscegenation laws were fundamentally un-American. In more modern times, the actions of the white supremacist groups storming the United States Capitol on January 6th, 2021 were an assault on our American commitment to the rule of law and free and fair elections. 

Nevertheless, that does not mean that a member of a minority group cannot abridge these values as well. Eileen Gu disregards American principles in representing the People’s Republic of China. I presume that Gu knows about the PRC’s oppression of Uighur Muslims, lack of free and fair elections, and its repression of activists in Hong Kong. However, she still decided to compete as a representative of China on the global stage.

Gu has become a media darling in China; she was recently on the cover of the Chinese versions of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and InStyle. Her unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of China’s transgressions indicates complicity. 

Gu acknowledging China’s human rights abuses would be monumental. It would show the Chinese Communist Party that athletes will hold them accountable and take a stand. Gu is in a unique position of influence, and she could be an advocate for real change for the Chinese people. Currently, nearly one million Uyghur Muslims are being forcibly sterilized, being compelled to write “self-criticism essays,” and are not permitted to participate in any of their traditional religious practices. Maybe the Stanford education Gu will begin to receive in the fall will enlighten her on the importance of democracy and change her mind about competing for a brutally repressive authoritarian government that is committing genocide. Until then, I will continue to criticize Gu for competing for the Chinese national team.

I cannot in good conscience give Gu a free pass simply because of her ancestry. Gu is an American, and Americans should hold dear their commitment to American notions of liberty, justice, and equality. If the United States government had detained one million members of an ethnic group in re-education camps, I would be apoplectic and refuse to represent the U.S. in any form. I hold Gu to the same standard. 

About the Author: Jack Galloway is a writer for the Vanguard’s Social Justice News Desk. He is from Sacramento, CA, and is currently studying Environmental Economics and Policy at UC Berkeley.


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  1. Keith Olson

    Good article, I agree with most of its content.

    Gu has become a media darling in China; she was recently on the cover of the Chinese versions of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and InStyle. Her unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of China’s transgressions indicates complicity. 

    And there you have it.  I think Gu wanted the best of both worlds and was willing to sell herself out for accolades and commercial opportunities from both the U.S. and China.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Gu is in a unique position of influence . . .

    Gu who?

    But seriously, who exactly is influenced? This morning is literally the first time I’ve heard of her.

    Does the Olympics itself “influence” anyone?

    And is there any unreported reason regarding the reason she competed for China?

    1. Bill Marshall


      I can see several… given her mother is Chinese… given she comes from two nationalities…

      The article came across as “jingoistic”… and focused on the fact that, in the author’s opinion, she didn’t speak out for ‘human rights violations’ enough…

      These are athletes, and shouldn’t be expected to be ‘politically correct’ in the author’s view… I suspect he never was in the position to make that choice… I remember the 1968 Olympics, where on the awards platform, two black athletes raised the “Black Power” salute… pretty much the end of their athletic careers…

      I seriously wonder about the motivations of the author.  I’ll leave it at that…

      1. Alan Miller

        The article came across as “jingoistic”…

        You have got to be kidding.  To me, anyhoo, jingoistic means you are so freaking patriotic you don’t even acknowledge the failings of the United States, and also implies a bit of hawkism.  Clearly, the author sees the United States as nothing near perfect, but also doesn’t buy into the ‘we have no right to judge other cultures’ fallacies.  How do you get jingoism from this?

        1. Bill Marshall

          I used wrong word… not sure what right one is… ‘philosophy-centric’ (not sure that’s a word)?

          The author picks on an athlete… an individual… maybe it would have been better if the author questioned whether ANY American athlete participated in either this Olympics, or the ones in 2008 (both in China)… but the author singles out one.

          Boycotts are legitimate tactics… but the author singles out one athlete, for being an athlete, competing for the home country of her mother, and excoriates her for not following his philosophical expectations?  If so, how many American athletes, including those of Asian, particularly Chinese descent, should have spoken out, or boycotted the Olympics in China?  How many African countries should have boycotted or spoken out against the US in the various Olympics we have hosted?

          Is the issue competing for a given country given one’s ethnic heritage?


  3. Keith Y Echols

    Eh, I dunno…all I know is competing for another country is not “American”.

    Prioritizing personal achievement over all else….that’s very American.

    Ron: But seriously, who exactly is influenced? This morning is literally the first time I’ve heard of her.

    I hardly follow the Olympics and I know who she is.  Yes, she’s known or going to be known by other potential rising Olympic athletes….especially in the US and China.  She’s seen on the big stage by all the little boys and girls that are watching the figure skating competition.  So yeah…she’s going to have some influence one way or the other…at least in terms of up and coming athletes and national identity.

    1. Ron Oertel

      The Chinese government probably should have picked a gold medalist, then.  🙂

      China controls its own media, regardless.

      I dunno – even when I was a kid, I didn’t understand why I’d care if “my” country (or team) won. (Though I will plead guilty to following the 49er’s success, in the 1980s. The first and last time I’ll do so regarding any team.)

      By the way, did you see the (relatively-mild) riot in LA, after the Rams won? Why is it that the winning team is always the one that hosts the subsequent riots?

      I don’t recall if it also works that way regarding soccer, around the world.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Correction – I see that she also won a gold.

        Well, I say at least two gold medals, before you can represent your country (and be a role model for all that country’s young people, and represent their respective government’s goals).  🙂

        Of course, similar concerns (perhaps more serious ones) arise regarding U.S. technology industries which bow to China’s demands.

        1. Bill Marshall

          (and be a role model for all that country’s young people, and represent their respective government’s goals)

          Can you articulate, in 2022, what are the US government goals?  Please share with the Prez, Congress, and any other (400 million of them) interest groups… who performs the ‘litmus test’ as to who is physically/talented, AND represent their respective governments’ goals (assuming you can find consensus on what those are!)?

        2. Ron Oertel

          Can you articulate, in 2022, what are the US government goals?  

          NATO expansion into Ukraine?

          I figure we should invite Russian and China in, as well.  Problem solved.  🙂

          We’ll need ultimately them to be part of the United Federation of Planets.  Protected, of course, by a white guy commanding the Starship – who doesn’t get along so well with his Asian flight commander, for some reason.

  4. Alan Miller

    Wow.  This is extremely well written and frames the strengths and failings of our country and China in a balanced and knowledgeable light. There is certainly opinion but lots of considered and measured facts.

    I don’t give a twerp about the Olympics; I honestly couldn’t tell you if they are about to happen, already happened or are in progress.  But I keep getting this name Gu in my news feed and that she is an American representing China, and I’ve been wondering what that was about, and this largely explains it though it still seems perplexing.

    If the United States government had detained one million members of an ethnic group in re-education camps . . .

    I assume you mean ‘were detaining’ not ‘had’.  It was quite common to forcibly take native children and place them in (often Christian-based) boarding schools far from their homes and forbid them to speak their tribal language nor practice any forms of native religion.  I do not know the numbers on this practice; I am most familiar with this being done with the Diné in Arizona and the practice was common well in to mid-1900’s.  And of course we all know about the legacy of the California missions, Sutter, etc.

    That was but a nit to pick.  I look forward to more pieces by this author.


  5. Ron Oertel

    But in the midst of her success, the 28-year-old, who is also a violinist, continues to encounter a longstanding issue: finding the right tights to match her skin tone.

    I’d find this amusing, if it wasn’t for a judge who noticed this.

    I don’t know – I think the outfit looks pretty good. Actually, anything looks pretty good on athletes.


    Personally, I object to the lack of pants which accommodate my (somewhat) expanding waist (and flat white arse).

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