It's Tricky
Bloomberg Businessweek|January 31, 2022
American-born Eileen Gu is the face of China’s winter sports initiative, a sponsor’s dream, and a teenage daredevil who’s being very careful with controversy
By Ellen Huet, with Sarah Chen and Allen Wan and John Liu

The enormous, curved, gleaming silver building resembles a spaceship that’s come gently to rest in the northwest of Chengdu. It’s July, hot, and humid. Inside the spaceship, though, visitors stifle shivers and watch their breath condense into puffs of vapor. They’re at Sunac Snow Park, a gigantic indoor ski resort that opened in the summer of 2020. The refrigerated complex, built to host about 4,000 skiers and snowboarders, features an artificial hill that slopes upward at least a couple hundred feet, two chairlifts, and three ski runs. There’s also a circular track for ice bicycling (think little bikes on a skating rink) and an open space for ice bumper cars.

China’s citizens have never really showed much interest in skiing. As recently as 1996, the entire country had just six ski resorts. Then winter sports got an official push from the government. In 2015, as part of Beijing’s successful bid to host this year’s Winter Olympics, President Xi Jinping vowed that by the time the games began, China would have 300 million people engaging in winter sports annually. (Something was lost in the translation of the official slogan of the government’s pro-sports campaign: “Three Hundred Million People Enter the Ice and Snow.”) From 2015 to 2020, the number of ski resorts in China rose from 568 to 715, and there are now dozens of indoor facilities like Sunac.

Gu competing in Calgary in 2020

For all the government’s planning, though, the country’s greatest source of snow-sport inspiration might have fallen into its lap. The small crowd is here to watch Eileen Gu, an American-born 18-year-old, take part in a ski-tricks show. Gu is a freestyle skier whose victories at last year’s X Games and world champion ships have made her a favorite to win three events at next month’s Olympics. Her events are the halfpipe, in which skiers string together a handful of tricks judged by technical prowess, creativity, and overall flair; slopestyle, which starts with skateboarder-style twists on metal railings, followed by three consecutive big-jump ramps that provide opportunities for more elaborate tricks; and big air, a set of three attempts at one massive jump, in which competitors keep their best score of the three.

At the snow park, Gu’s fans have thrown parkas over their T-shirts to watch her and some fellow Olympic-class skiers engage in a series of friendly 1-on-1 trick battles. It’s one of her first public ski outings since she fractured a finger and tore a ligament in her thumb a few months earlier, so she isn’t holding poles as she rides down pipes and rails, then shoots up off the snow, spins, and grabs her skis in midair. Still, her tricks are impressive, if a bit conservative. Afterward, Gu, dressed in a hot pink ski jacket, musters fresh smiles for dozens of teenage fans seeking selfies, a younger child who wants to play Legos with her, and a posed photo with a box of Red Bull, one of her major sponsors. One onlooker, Si Junying, says Gu inspired her to start skiing. Another fan, a snowboarder named Li Xianzhe, says Gu could be the “spiritual leader” who makes snow sports a mainstream Chinese pastime.

Modeling for Louis Vuitton

Gu has also been the subject of intense attention because her personal story lies at the intersection of simmering international tensions. Born Gu Ailing in San Francisco to a Chinese mom and an American dad, she grew up in the U.S. and spent her summers in China. She was eligible to compete for either country, but in 2019, at age 15, she chose China. That was a “very good choice,” Li says. “China is comparatively weak in snow sports,” he adds. “Chinese skiers need an idol like her.”

Gu is the story China wants to tell about this year’s games, and events like the Chengdu show can’t help but feel engineered. She’s skiing over artificial powder underneath lights instead of sky, feeling still air instead of wind. Some of this is due to the local environment—Beijing will be the first Olympic host city to rely entirely on machine-made snow—and some owe to the political climate.

That same day at Sunac, Gu sits at a table in a hotel ballroom across from a gaggle of mostly Chinese journalists and answers pre-submitted questions about her training schedule, her hobbies, and whether she likes spicy food. “It’s so fun to ski indoors—it’s stunning to get on a chairlift in an indoor facility,” she says in fluent Mandarin. The Q&A doesn’t broach one particular Q: What does she see as her role in the ongoing political drama between China and the U.S.?

American politicians including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senator Mitt Romney were already calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. The U.S. is among several countries that have accused China of committing genocide against Uyghurs and other, mostly Muslim, ethnic groups. Human-rights advocates estimate that China has sent more than 1 million Uyghurs to prison camps over the past few years, and reports from those camps have detailed incidents of forced labor, sexual abuse, torture, and sterilization.

Enjoying a win in California on Jan. 8

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