Eileen Gu, Jingoism, and Olympic Politics
“I do corks in an icy, 22-foot, U-shaped snow structure. That’s not political. It’s pushing the human limit and it’s connecting people.”
~ Eileen Gu, winner of three Olympic medals
Into the chasm that is U.S.-China relations burst a force of nature, 18-year old freestyle skier Eileen Gu, as she took the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing by storm. Gu was born to Chinese and American parents and raised by her Chinese mother in San Francisco. She elected to ski for China in June 2019 when few had ever heard of her. Nineteen months later, she became the first rookie at the X Games to win three medals (two golds and a bronze), launching her into the rarified air of global sports icons.
The world is becoming a smaller place: more interconnected and borderless. Companies are increasingly global, why not people? Eileen Gu is half Chinese and spends 25–30% of her life in China. “I was raised bilingual and spent every summer in Beijing so I know Chinese culture and American culture as well,” she told the state Xinhua news agency a year ago. “So I have that dual identity, where together, two halves make a whole for me.” Predictably, she has become a magnet for lucrative endorsement deals, including global fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, Red Bull (based in Austria) and over 20 Chinese companies such as China Mobile, JD.com and ANTA Sports (#2 sporting goods retailer in China and #3 in the world).
This is unwelcome news for governments which demand its citizens pledge allegiance to the nation-state. Far worse, Gu challenges the anti-China official narrative and does not fit into a tiny box of allowable opinion. She’s not “with us or against us.” In fact, she is openly against polarization and actively building bridges. She floats above the petty politics and can claim the innocence of youth, yet is savvy beyond her years. She and her “mum” seem to know exactly what they are doing.
Eileen Gu has attracted her share of critics from both the left and right. Fox News conservative host Tucker Carlson called for “collective revulsion” on the part of the American people and dismissed her decision to compete for China, saying “Young people do dumb things.” His guest, Will Cain, piled on:
It is incredibly … ungrateful of her to betray, turn her back, on the country that not just raised her, but turned her into a world-class skier, with the training and facilities that only the United States of America can provide. For her to then turn her back on that in exchange for money is shameful. It’s ungrateful like a child that says, “I’m out of here, I’m moving somewhere else,” after being raised in a warm home.
It may or may not take a village to raise an Olympic athlete, but in this case it took the private savings and guidance of a determined “tiger mom.” Yan Gu began her studies at Peking University in the 1980s, earned degrees in chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology, and finished with an MBA from Stanford University before pursuing a career as an investment banker and venture capitalist (not to mention a stint as a part-time ski instructor). She even paid for her daughter to attend a prestigious private prep school in San Francisco where Eileen (who reportedly scored 1580 on her SAT) graduated a year early to focus on training for the Olympics.
Li Jingjing, reporter for Chinese state-run CGTN [China Global Television Network], responded to the Western media attacks:
There’s no denying how American upbringing helped her grow, but these media attacks are childish. It’s like saying, “you succeed because we let you.” She is an American, but she’s also Chinese. She’s both. She’s not betraying any side of that. And there’s no need to deny either side of her because she’s a perfect example of many people in the world now: multi-cultural. But the media attacking her are totally neglecting her Chinese half and how Chinese heritage influenced her. And most importantly, how talented and diligent she is. She’s so successful today because she’s hard working. She put so much hours of her life into the sport she loves. And I think the other reason for her success is the education of her parents.
Gu appears to be a blend of both cultures: Chinese (strong work ethic, focus on education, respect for tradition) and American (non-conformity, risk taking, openness, freedom). Her entrepreneurial instincts probably come from both.
As for the haters, Gu has a ready answer: “My goal is to spread positivity. If your goal is to spread negativity, do that. It’s your prerogative, but I’m not going to have any part of it.”
Why Gu Chose China
I love the Winter Olympics, partially from being a passionate skier, but also because the Games are not dominated by the world’s superpowers. During the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, Norway, a country whose population equals that of South Carolina, topped the medal count with 14 golds and 39 total. The United States, Russia and China finished 4th, 13th and 16th respectively. China captured one gold medal while competing in just 12 events out of a total of 102. Eileen Gu is a prize that either country’s government would love to claim, but meant more to China, not simply because they hosted the games, but because winter sports are still early in their development. (With the 2022 Olympics now complete, China vaulted to 3rd place with 9 gold medals, including two from Gu.)
2018 Winter Olympics Medal Count
YouTuber and former sports marketer Cyrus Janssen is an American expat who lived abroad for 14 years, the majority of that time in Mainland China. He weighed in on why Gu chose China:
Winter sports are growing tremendously in China. Over the past 10 years, millions of Chinese have started to learn winter sports and even China’s president, Xi Jinping, has said he would like to see some 300 million Chinese start to participate in winter sports. But the Chinese need a hero. They need someone they can look up to. Snowboarding is already extremely popular in China…. However, China doesn’t have enough talent in skiing and Eileen Gu could single-handedly change this with her performance in Beijing … I believe that her decision to represent China is a mature decision of a young girl that realizes a rare opportunity before her. If she represented America in the Olympics, how many young American girls would she inspire to take up skiing? The reality is very little because American skiing is so developed and the market is so saturated. Even if Eileen went to Beijing and captured three gold medals for Team USA, it really wouldn’t move the needle for female sports in America. However, by representing China, Eileen has the chance to not only move the needle, she would become the needle in China. She single-handedly could inspire millions of young girls in China to take up a sport.
The Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity
The upward path of human progress should never be taken for granted. Harmony and abundance require an ever-expanding division of labor and unforced, mutually beneficial trade. We naturally gravitate towards specialization, developing our unique talents and exchanging the fruits of our labor with others who do the same. In such an elegant, unplanned system, inequality is a blessing. If humans were automatons, the division of labor would cease to exist. So would human flourishing.
Self-sufficiency is a delusion. When it comes to trade, the more the merrier. Few acknowledge the significance of 956 million Chinese entering the global economy in 1978 under Deng Xiaoping. China’s rise from the dumpster of Maoist socialism to the second largest economy in the world should be applauded by the West, but instead is met with suspicion. Ironically, much of the criticism is tinged with an anti-capitalistic mentality: a lack of appreciation for the conditions that allowed the West to prosper, i.e., for a time Western governments tolerated far more freedom than Eastern governments.
Fear the Dragon
China-bashing has become a popular sport in the West for a number of reasons:
Mercantilism—Trade is seen as exploitation, win-lose. Donald Trump has been the most visible and vocal proponent of this view. “We have been ripped off by China for a long time,” he told CNBC news anchor Joe Kernen in July, 2018. In March, 1990, near the top of the Japan bubble, he complained that Japanese investors were overpaying for Manhattan trophy properties: “The Japanese will pay more than it's worth just to screw us.” Less trade shrinks the division of labor and replaces interdependence with contention.
Reification fallacy—Labels like “USA” and “China” lump people into abstract blobs. This leads to binary thinking, sacrificing individual interests for the common good and dehumanizing the other side. As David Bergland stated in Libertarianism in One Lesson, “One purpose for engaging in this fallacy is to depersonalize people you want to mistreat.”
“Evil dictator” playbook—The accepted way to remove bad foreign rulers involves an endless litany of trade regulations, sanctions and embargoes. Of course, this has precisely the opposite effect, harming both countries’ economies while giving the evil dictator the perfect bogeyman to blame for his people’s suffering (while he remains living in luxury), only strengthening his grip on power.
External enemies—If you’re the state, war is good for business. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a hot war, cold war or war on an abstraction, e.g., poverty, drugs, terrorism, discrimination, climate change, a virus, etc. With the Biden administration’s approval ratings sinking faster than NBCUniversal’s Olympics ratings, expect more hobgoblins to come out of the closet. As Doug Casey warns about Russia-Ukraine tensions,
The main reason that the US government is beating the war drums is that war has always been a distraction from domestic problems. Create a foreign enemy on whom to blame domestic problems, and it will reliably divert the news cycle from things you don’t want the hoi polloi to hear or talk about. A real or fabricated foreign enemy unites the public. The further the economy and the society deteriorate, the more war-mongering we’ll hear from Washington.
Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang
On December 23, 2021, President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law. How this will “address the plight of Uyghurs and other persecuted minority groups in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” is anyone’s guess. The UFLPA makes a “rebuttable presumption” that all goods manufactured in Xinjiang are made with forced labor unless the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection deems otherwise. In other words: guilty until proven innocent. Firms engaged in legitimate trade in the region must either navigate a legal morass or take their business elsewhere. No wonder the UFLPA was passed with nearly unanimous support (428–1 in the House and 100–0 in the Senate): the U.S. government gets to harm innocent Muslims and rankle the Chinese, all under the pretext of defending human rights and opposing repression.
There is nothing like an external enemy, half a world away, to unite strange bedfellows. After 9/11, the U.S. government looked the other way when China interned its Muslim population due to allegations of Islamic terrorism. Now that China is the designated villain, the “Uyghur genocide” narrative has gone viral, with The New York Times, The Washington Post, ESPN, Bill Maher and Tucker Carlson all in lockstep. Even John Stossel, who normally challenges mainstream media and defends capitalism, has joined the anti-China chorus.
To his credit, Stossel asks the right question: “What do you want the NBA and all these companies to do, just turn their back on the Chinese market?” Melissa Chen, self-described classical liberal and free speech advocate, answers “absolutely.” Easy for her to say; she’s not walking away from multi-million dollar endorsement deals. Engagement, on the other hand, has opened the vast Chinese market to B-list athletes and continued a love affair with American brands, to the delight of both parties to every transaction. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” suggests the English proverb. Pursuit of profit and doing good are not mutually exclusive.
This is not to suggest China’s economy represents some kind of laissez-faire ideal, far from it. Xi Jinping, the paramount leader of China, is no Deng Xiaoping. His overarching interventions and distrust of the invisible hand buttress the bear case. As for the propaganda wars, two can play this game. As Marko Papic, chief strategist at Clocktower Group, says:
All is fair in love and war. I am not being normative about US propaganda. God bless the US! And God bless China! Both have the right to overemphasize each other’s flaws and use it to their advantage.
Olympics, Amateurism and Jim Thorpe
At its founding, the Olympic movement turned its back on the profit motive under the guise of “amateurism.” According to James Ring Adams, senior historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian,
[The stripping of Jim Thorpe's two gold medals at the 1912 Summer Olympics] also set a precedent for an extreme interpretation of amateurism, which was not at all settled at the time and which now has been completely abandoned. This version held that an Olympic competitor should not have received any compensation at any time for any sport, even one unrelated to his event, or for a line of work related to sports. The great Native Hawaiian swimmer and surfer George Freeth, mentor of Duke Kahanamoku, was excluded from the 1912 Olympics because he worked as a lifeguard. This principle would seem quaint now, if it were not so vicious.
The effect of this policy was to restrict entry, making the less fortunate its victims. (Thorpe had been the first Native American to win gold.)
This version of amateurism was said to be modeled on English upper-class sportsmanship, and that is the tip-off. The English rules were overtly designed to keep lower and middle classes from competing with the aristocracy. The Henley Royal Regatta explicitly excluded anyone who “is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer”; it barred entry, for instance, to the American Olympic champion sculler John B. Kelly, Sr. father of the actress Grace Kelly, future Princess of Monaco. (Kelly went on to win three gold medals, in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, even though he had previously played professional football.) Historians would say that this doctrine of amateurism was a case of status anxiety, a means of protecting privilege against a rising class challenge. It’s significant that the one group of professionals that were allowed to compete in their Olympic sport were fencing masters, because they were by definition “gentlemen.”
Enter the influential Avery Brundage. Marc Faber, who was born in Zürich and raced for the Swiss Ski Team in the late 1960s when the sport was still for amateurs, writes in the August 1, 2018 issue of The Gloom, Boom & Doom Report:
In order to understand the changes that have occurred in … most sports since those earlier times, it is important to consider the role of Avery Brundage (1887–1975), the controversial fifth president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who served from 1952 to 1972. Brundage is remembered as a zealous advocate of amateurism … [He] became a most unpopular figure in the world of sports. At the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, as a member of the International Association of Athletic Federations, he banned Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi—probably the best long-distance runner of the 20th century—from participating. In 1972, he banned from the Sapporo Winter Olympics by far the best downhill skier at the time, Austrian Karl Schranz, whom he called a “walking billboard.” (His absence allowed a friend of mine, Swiss downhill skier Bernard Russi, from Andermatt, to win the gold medal.)
Adding insult to injury, Thorpe’s medals were not restored until 29 years after his death. Adams recounts:
Thorpe’s family and friends kept petitioning the IOC to restore his rightful honors. The campaign only intensified after Thorpe’s death in 1953. It encountered stubborn resistance, however, from a person with a vested interest in making Thorpe an unperson. From 1952 to 1972, the president of the IOC was the American Avery Brundage. By strange coincidence, Brundage was not only Thorpe’s teammate in the 1912 Olympics, he competed against Thorpe in the pentathlon and decathlon, finishing sixth in the pentathlon. With Thorpe removed from the amateur ranks, Brundage became national all-around champion, a standing that he later admitted helped open doors to his construction business.
A self-righteous, vindictive sort, Brundage was typecast for the role of villain in the Thorpe affair. He has been blamed, more or less implausibly, for everything from ratting out Thorpe to the IOC to stealing his track shoes at Stockholm. One of Thorpe’s leading biographers, Robert Wheeler, doubts that Brundage was involved in the original disqualification, but Brundage more than made up for it in later life by his curt dismissal of petitions for Thorpe’s reinstatement, some of them organized by Thorpe’s daughter, Grace, and by Wheeler himself.
However, to be fair to Brundage, he defended and stood for the ideals held by Pierre de Coubertin (the father of the modern Olympics), which are expressed in the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Brundage and de Coubertin shared a noble vision: to bring people of all nations together through sports, free of discrimination and politics. However, they failed to understand the role of wealth. After all, the Industrial Revolution made the leisure class possible. Before, life was “nasty, brutish and short” and men were constantly at each other’s throats. Amateurism restricted entry and encouraged cheating, culminating in the Eastern Bloc state-sponsorship model. Since the Olympics began admitting professionals in 1986, athletes have come to rely heavily on corporate sponsorships, lowering barriers to entry and raising the overall level of competition. Today there are many paths to the Olympics, e.g., some figure skaters even work part-time on cruise ships to train.
“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”
Capitalism is a competition to best serve the consumer while conserving scarce resources: land, labor, capital and entrepreneurial talent. Profit/loss is simply the way to keep score. As in sports, the agony of defeat is just as important as the thrill of victory, perhaps even more so. Failure provides valuable information and motivation, driving participants to great heights.
All coercive relationships, like that of the nation-state and its citizens, are win-lose. One party is harmed at the expense of the other. Such a system saps human motivation, replaces comradery with divisiveness, stifles innovation and impedes progress.
Eileen Gu is that rare individual who has largely freed herself of the nation-state. She doesn’t play by its rules. She sets lofty goals and achieves them. She leads by example. She exudes the best attributes of two cultures. She brings people together, to the dismay of her own government. She is to U.S.-China relations what the Beatles were to U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. She is the Bruce Lee of her generation, straddling two different worlds. Eileen Gu is a breath of fresh air, a supernova that transcends borders and politics.
Last year, while preparing for the Olympics, Gu remarked, “The most important thing in life is to find something you like to do and enjoy it. The second most important thing is to change the world.”
This article was excerpted from the latest issue of The Coffee Can Portfolio.