For China’s star athlete Eileen Gu, “either-or” isn’t in her vocabulary.
Born to a Chinese mother and American father, the 18-year-old skier grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area while straddling the Pacific. While in the U.S., she took piano, surfing, and skiing lessons. Come summer, she’d travel to Beijing to study for the Mathematical Olympiad and the SAT.
Years later, she’d find herself in the same city representing China at the Winter Olympics and at the center of a debate over her nationality and identity. “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” she has often said.
Gu’s evident rejection of identifying with only one nation has angered some critics. Though the Olympian has so far deflected questions about her dual citizenship—which is not recognized in Chinese law—conservative outlets have called her a “traitor” to the United States. In an interview last week, ex-UN ambassador Nikki Haley urged the skier to pick a side. “You’re standing for freedom or you’re standing for human rights abuses. There is no in-between,” the former Trump appointee said.
The badgering Gu has faced about her citizenship is a shared sentiment for many who don’t fit into a binary.
With roots more complex than an allegiance to their place of birth, people with dual nationalities have frequently faced the query of where their loyalties lie. The question is even more pronounced at global sporting events like the Olympics, where an athlete must compete under the flag of a nation.
But at a time when the population of multiracial people is at its largest on record, those with mixed backgrounds have said such pressure to choose takes away from the diversity that the Games are supposed to be about.
Sandra Haefelin, a popular commentator and author of books on multiracialism in Japan who is of Japanese and German descent, said attacking Gu for being a “traitor” and asking her personal questions about her citizenship were unfair.
“Even though some countries are advocating for globalization and diversity, when it comes to discussions about citizenship for those with mixed roots, dual nationals, critics can be very harsh,” she told VICE World News.
But according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, the Olympics were never designed to be a competition between nations. This rivalry began after WWII and the Cold War, he said, as the United States measured how well it was doing against the Soviet Union, then a rival political power.
“They’re trying to prove the superiority of their governmental or political systems by how well their athletes do at the Olympic Games,” he told VICE World News.
As a consequence, he said athletes like Gu can face backlash when it looks like they’re betraying a country.
“The athletes make a decision for his or her career and whatever they think would be best for them in the future, both in terms of their athletic endeavors and probably financially. Most of the people criticizing them would do the same thing,” he said.
Aside from Gu, other athletes have similarly faced global scrutiny over their citizenship in the past.
Women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka, who had American and Japanese nationality, made headlines when people inquired about her citizenship. Like China, Japanese law does not recognize dual nationals. In Japan, those with multiple passports are asked to select one by the age of 22. Osaka said she gave up her U.S. citizenship to play for Japan.
Some athletes have also chosen to switch their citizenship to a country where they could more easily qualify for the Olympics. U.S.-raised basketball player Yvonne Anderson chose to represent Serbia at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, acknowledging it was a long shot to compete for America where basketball is highly competitive.
Gu has largely dodged questions about her official citizenship, an issue dual nationals similarly recall sidestepping.
Lana Kageyama, a magazine editor who has both French and Japanese citizenship, said she was berated at the government’s passport bureau when it learned she had both, despite Japanese law only requiring dual citizens to “try” to get rid of their non-Japanese passport.
“From the moment I was born, before I even had consciousness, I was responsible for my double nationality, which is kind of unfair because obviously I wouldn’t know,” she told VICE World News.
“I literally had to let go of a part of my own nationality in order to defend and represent another part of who I am.”
Aya Spencer, a venture capitalist of Japanese and American descent, recalled having to renounce her Japanese citizenship when she worked for the U.S. government. “I was like 19, 20 years old, and I remember I had to put my hand on the Bible and swear and say, I will defend the United States and only the United States,” she told VICE World News.
“It really hurt me inside, because I literally had to let go of a part of my own nationality in order to defend and represent another part of who I am,” she said.
Spencer described learning to detach herself from identifying with either Japan or the United States, because she was never fully accepted as belonging to either. “What ends up happening when you start looking for these countries to latch on to, to define you? It really puts your sense of self-worth and who you identify as an individual in the hands of a nation’s borders,” she said.
Now, she identifies herself as Black and Asian, flowing freely between both of her cultural backgrounds.
But for Gu, the weight of dual nationality also comes with the affluence that many aren’t afforded.
Raised with the best of both cultures, Gu has enjoyed a life of luxury curated to her needs, flying between China and the United States. To become a better skier, she’s attended ski school since the age of three, frequently taking weekend trips to Lake Tahoe with her mother. During the academic year, she went to San Francisco University High School, a private school with an annual price tag of about $54,000. To study for the SAT, Gu traveled to Beijing, where she attended test prep centers famous for their academic rigor. China possibly turning a blind eye to her likely dual nationality because of her contribution to Beijing’s global image is also a privilege that most others don’t have.
In contrast, for the skier’s native Chinese counterparts in the Olympics, sports are a means to an end. Many hail from poorer families who can only afford low tuition at sports schools, whereas sports are just one of many hobbies Gu’s family could pay for. It’s also just one of several career options available to Gu. The 18-year-old is also the face of at least 23 brands in China, amassing about $31.4 million in modeling and brand advertising deals last year.
Spencer acknowledged that floating between two cultures was also, in a way, a privilege exclusive to dual nationals and which some have learned to use strategically. “If I want to go to Japan to accomplish x, y, and z and I have the means to do it, then I'll go to Japan and do it,” she said.
“These are all experiences that add value to who I am, and I don’t see there being a problem with leveraging what you have to to find opportunities,” she said.
Though Spencer acknowledged Gu’s affluence, what she found more surprising was the 18-year-old’s extreme talent at such a young age.
“I really have a lot of respect for her because it seems like she’s very confident in who she is and what she brings to the table and her talents,” she said.
And confidence Gu has. In an essay published in the New York Times, she wrote about minimizing her need for external validation and working on her self-esteem to be the accomplished skier she already is. Despite the immense pressure that cracked some athletes at the Beijing Olympics, the skier became the first in her discipline to medal three times—two gold and one silver—at a single Games.
Spencer said she liked the idea of Gu using her assets to help define her identity, rather than attaching her self-worth simply to a country’s borders.
“And it’s just really refreshing to hear someone just say that and not think too deeply and define who she is based on the country,” she said.