Hong Kong(CNN) At this year's Beijing Winter Olympics, the face of China's sporting dreams is undeniably American.
Freestyle skier Eileen Gu's rise to the top has been meteoric -- and her popularity in China has exploded in the lead-up to the Games. "Snow princess Gu Ailing set to shine at home Olympics," read one headline in state-run media Xinhua, referring to Gu by her Chinese name.
But Gu, 18, has another home: the United States, where she was born to a Chinese mother and American father, and where she first discovered her love for the sport. In 2015, just a few months after she reached her first World Cup podium, the San Francisco native announced she was switching to compete for China instead of the US -- a controversial decision that thrust her firmly into the spotlight.
"This was an incredibly tough decision for me to make," she wrote in an Instagram post at the time. "I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud of my American upbringings."
A delivery worker rides pasts an advertisement showing Eileen Gu, at a bus stop in Beijing on January 11.
She has since become a household name in China. Walk down the street and you'll see her face splashed across billboards and magazine covers. Promotional videos ahead of the Olympics show Gu performing tricks midair and running on the Great Wall. She has nearly 2 million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, as well as multiple Chinese sponsors, brand deals, and documentary teams following her every movement.
But behind her success is the heavy pressure of being both Chinese and American at a time of intense geopolitical tensions; of representing her mother's homeland, a country under fire in the West for alleged human rights abuses; and of trying to be an athlete and nothing more during one of the most controversial Olympics in recent history.
She's not the only one walking this tightrope -- the Beijing Olympics feature an unprecedented number of foreign-born athletes competing for China, many hailing from North America. Among them, Gu has become a poster child for an ambitious China, eager to show it has the power to attract foreign talent and mold a new type of Chinese athlete on the world stage.
But these athletes -- especially those of Chinese descent -- face an impossible balancing act as they straddle two countries and navigate the complexities of a dual identity in the public eye.
An impossible position
More than a dozen athletes representing China at the Olympics are foreign-born -- and most are on the men's hockey team, where only six of the 25 members are homegrown nationals.
Switching citizenship for sport is actually quite common internationally -- China is just late to the game, said Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The shift is especially unusual given that China is highly homogenous with some of the world's strictest immigration rules. "China never did things like this before," Brownell added.
There are plenty of Caucasian faces in the mix with no Chinese ethnicity or obvious link to the country, such as former NHL players Jake Chelios and Jeremy Smith. But it's the athletes of Chinese descent who are under the most scrutiny, such as Canadian-born hockey player Brandon Yip and US-born ice skater Zhu Yi, formerly known as Beverly Zhu.
Zhu's disappointing Olympic debut served to illustrate the unique pressures facing these athletes. After she fell flat on the ice and finished last in the women's short program team event Sunday, Chinese social media exploded in scorn and vitriol directed at the 19-year-old skater.
On Weibo, the hashtag "Zhu Yi has fallen" gained 200 million views in just a few hours. Many questioned why Zhu was picked for the team at the expense of a Chinese-born athlete, while others criticized her halting Mandarin. "This is such a disgrace," said a comment with 11,000 upvotes.
Gu and Zhu are mirror images in many ways -- both born in California, only a year apart in age -- but Gu has charmed the public with her fluent Mandarin and familiarity with Chinese culture, and has received little of the Chinese skepticism that dogs Zhu.
Gu advanced to the Big Air finals at her first qualifying competition on Monday, after being introduced by the announcer as a "favorite" and drawing a roar from the excited crowd. But it's unclear whether that adulation will continue if Gu doesn't deliver the gold medals she's tipped to win.
And Gu's fame brings its own challenges. Fox News has labeled her the "ungrateful child of America," a sentiment found frequently under her social media posts, as well as that of hockey players like Chelios.
"Nice to see you take all your USA successes and accomplishments to China and not represent where you were born and raised," a commenter wrote under one of Gu's Instagram posts last week.
Some have accused her of placing profit and prestige above taking a stand on human rights issues, with critics taking particular aim at the high-profile sponsorships she has landed in China. The US is leading a diplomatic boycott of the Games, citing the alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in China's western Xinjiang region -- which Gu has stayed quiet on.
25 athletes to watch in the Beijing Winter Olympics
Eileen Gu, an 18-year-old freestyle skier, is the defending world champion in the halfpipe and slopestyle events, and she will also compete in the big air event while at the Olympics. Gu was born in the United States and her father is American, but in 2019 she decided that she would compete for China, where her mother was born. She called it "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love."
Ester Ledecká (Czech Republic):
Four years ago, Ledecká became the first athlete in history to compete in both snowboarding and alpine skiing in the same Olympics. And she won gold in both,
winning the super-G skiing event and then following it up with a victory in parallel giant slalom. It had been 90 years since anyone claimed gold in two different sports at the same Winter Games. Now 26, Ledecká will try to make history in what is her third Olympics.
Erin Jackson (United States):
Jackson, the world's top-ranked speedskater in the 500 meters, stumbled at the US trials and failed to qualify for the Olympics. But the winner of that race, veteran Brittany Bowe, gave her spot to Jackson
and said "no one's more deserving." Jackson, 29, said she was "grateful and humbled" by Bowe's kindness. It ended up working out for both skaters in the end; some nations returned their Olympic quota spots, opening up an extra spot
that would allow both Jackson and Bowe to compete. Bowe, 33, already was set to race in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters.
Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (Norway): Norway has dominated cross-country skiing in the Olympics. The most decorated Winter Olympian of all time, Marit Bjørgen, was a cross-country skier from Norway. But she retired after the 2018 Games, and now Klæbo will try to pick up where she left off. The 25-year-old had a great start in 2018, winning three golds in his Olympic debut in South Korea. He also won multiple titles at the most recent World Championships.
Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan):
Hanyu, one of the greatest male figure skaters in history, is looking for his third straight Olympic gold in singles. He was just 19 at the 2014 Sochi Games, where he became figure skating's youngest Olympic champion since 1948.
He also became the first Asian skater to win the men's singles title. Hanyu's fans throw Winnie the Pooh bears on the ice after he performs; the tradition
started after he began carrying a tissue box in the shape of the character back in 2010.
Chloe Kim (United States):
Kim, an American snowboarder, was one of the breakout stars from the 2018 Winter Games, winning gold in the halfpipe
at the age of 17. Four years later, she's favored to defend her title. Kim also won gold at the last two World Championships.
Mikaela Shiffrin (United States):
Shiffrin has been the face of American skiing for years now, and she's still at the height of her powers. The 26-year-old, who's won Olympic gold twice, leads the World Cup overall standings and recently won her 47th World Cup slalom race
— that's the most World Cup victories ever in a single discipline. Shiffrin is also the defending world champion in the combined event, which is the slalom plus the downhill. She will be a medal threat in several events.
Ryōyū Kobayashi (Japan): The ski jumping competitions could be wide open this year, especially after Poland's Kamil Stoch — a three-time Olympic champion — recently suffered an ankle injury in training. Kobayashi, 25, has been in great form and recently won three of the four events at the prestigious Four Hills Tournament. Also watch out for Germany's Karl Geiger, who recently overtook Kobayashi in the World Cup standings, and Norway's Robert Johansson, who won three Olympic medals in 2018.
Arianna Fontana (Italy): Fontana, seen at left, has won eight Olympic medals. That's tied for the most ever by a short-track speedskater. Her specialty is the 500 meters, which she won in 2018 and has medaled in the last three Olympic Games. Fontana was the youngest Italian to win a Winter Games medal when she won a bronze at the age of 15 in 2006. She's now 31.
Johannes Thingnes Boe (Norway): Boe has won the last three World Cup titles in the biathlon, a discipline that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. He won three Olympic medals in 2018, including a gold in the 20-kilometer event. The 28-year-old will be among the favorites in China, especially after the retirement of legendary French biathlete Martin Fourcade.
Wu Dajing (China): Wu won China's only gold medal in the 2018 Olympics, breaking the world record in the 500-meter short-track race. He finished with a time of 39.584 seconds, becoming just the second person in history to skate the race under 40 seconds. Wu, 27, has won four Olympic medals in his career, including a silver in the 500 in 2014.
Natalie Geisenberger (Germany): Geisenberger, 34, is the most decorated female luger in Olympic history, winning five medals over three Winter Games. Four of the five medals are gold; she has won the singles and team events in each of the last two Olympics.
Nathan Chen (United States):
If anyone is favored to end Yuzuru Hanyu's reign in men's figure skating, it is the 22-year-old Chen, who has won three straight world titles. Chen, the first skater ever to land five quadruple jumps in a routine, was expected to challenge for gold at the 2018 Olympics, but he stumbled in the short program and finished a disappointing fifth.
Anna Hasselborg (Sweden): Hasselborg, 32, was the skip of the gold-medal-winning curling team at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. She'll be back in China along with teammates Sara McManus, Agnes Knochenhauer and Sofia Maberg. Swedish women have won three curling golds at the Olympics, the most of any nation.
Kamila Valieva (Russian Olympic Committee): Valieva is only 15 years old, but she comes in as the favorite this year in women's figure skating. She won the Russian national championship in December and followed that up with a European title in January, breaking her own world-record score in the short program. She's just the fourth female figure skater to land a quadruple jump in competition, and she's the second to land a quadruple toe loop. She'll be pushed by two other Russian teenagers that she trains with: Alexandra Trusova and defending world champion Anna Shcherbakova.
Alexis Pinturault (France): Pinturault, 30, is the reigning World Cup champion in alpine skiing, and he is looking to add an Olympic gold medal to go with the silver he won in 2018. He finished just .23 seconds behind Austria's Marcel Hirscher in the combined event. Hirscher is now retired. if Pinturault wins gold, he would be France's first alpine skiing champion in 16 years.
Ireen Wüst (Netherlands): The Dutch are renowned for their speedskating program, and Wüst is the greatest of them all. No long-track speedskater has won more Olympic medals than she has (11). Five of those medals are gold, including one from 2018 in the 1,500 meters. She's won a gold medal at every Winter Olympics since 2006.
Sui Wenjing and Han Cong (China): Sui and Han, one of the best figure skating pairs in the world, will be among the host nation's best hopes for a gold medal. They missed out by just .43 points four years ago, finishing with the silver. They bounced back with gold at the World Championships in 2019.
Lindsey Jacobellis (United States): Jacobellis, seen at right, is heading to her fifth Olympic Games at age 36, and she's still looking for that elusive gold medal in snowboard cross. Jacobellis had the gold medal in the bag in 2006 when she went for a showoff move on a jump and then fell. She finished with the silver and shrugged off the finish, saying: "Snowboarding is fun. I was having fun."
Francesco Friedrich (Germany): Friedrich, left, piloted two bobsleds to Olympic gold in 2018, winning both the two-man and four-man events. (The two-men event actually ended in a tie for first.) Friedrich, 31, was the sixth driver in history to win the two-man and the four-man events in the same Olympics.
Timothy LeDuc (United States):
LeDuc, 31, is set to become the first openly nonbinary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics.
LeDuc will compete in pairs figure skating along with 26-year-old Ashley Cain-Gribble, and the US champions' outfits challenge gender stereotypes. "My hope is that the narrative shifts more to queer people can be open and successful in sports," LeDuc said recently. "We've always been here, we've always been a part of sports. We just haven't always been able to be open."
Martins Dukurs (Latvia): Dukurs, 37, has been a dominant force in skeleton for years, winning six world championships and 11 World Cup titles, including the last three. But the one thing that has eluded him has been Olympic gold. He won silver in 2010 and 2014 before finishing fourth in 2018.
Marie-Philip Poulin (Canada):
Poulin, one of the greatest women's hockey players of all time, received the nickname "Captain Clutch" after scoring the game-winning goals in both the 2010 and 2014 Olympic finals. She also scored in the 2018 gold-medal game, but the Canadians lost to the United States in a dramatic penalty shootout.
Poulin, 30, will lead Team Canada again in China.
Shaun White (United States):
White has been the face of snowboarding since 2006, when he won gold in his Olympic debut and was known as the "flying tomato" because of his flowing red hair. He has won gold in the halfpipe event three times, and his most recent win in 2018 prompted an emotional celebration.
At 35, this is likely to be his last Olympics, and he will be looking to go out on top. But he'll face stiff competition from a talented field that includes Japan's Yuto Totsuka, the defending world champion.
Through it all, Gu has tried to walk a middle path. She creates social media content in both English and Chinese, posts photos from Shanghai and California, cracks jokes for American audiences on TikTok while starring in Chinese-language documentaries in the mainland.
"When I'm in China, I'm Chinese. When I'm in the US, I'm American," Gu told Olympic Channel at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Winter Olympics.
Just last week, she alluded to this dual identity in a caption on Instagram. "Having been introduced to the sport growing up in the US, I wanted to encourage Chinese skiers the same way my American role models inspired me," she wrote.
But as much as she wants to express both parts of her heritage and stay away from politics, it seems the world won't let her. And China's embrace of Gu also reflects its uncompromising view of nationality, which has become more insular and forceful under Chinese President Xi Jinping: either you're Chinese or you're not.
The citizenship debate
Hanging over Gu -- and many of the foreign-born athletes -- is the question of citizenship.
China does not allow dual citizenship, with the government cracking down in recent years and encouraging the public to report people secretly holding two passports. There are very few exceptions to the ban, and it's highly unlikely any of these exceptional circumstances apply to the athletes in question, said Donald Clarke, a professor at the George Washington University Law School specializing in Chinese law.
"The only way the hockey players could become Chinese citizens is to become naturalized, and under China's nationality law, they need to renounce their foreign citizenship," Clarke told CNN. The same goes for Gu.
Eileen Gu after placing first in the Women's Freeski Halfpipe competition at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix on January 8, 2022 in Mammoth, California.
But it's not clear whether that has been enforced. Gu has never publicly shared whether she renounced her US citizenship to compete for China, and speculation grew after she applied for the US Presidential Scholars Program in 2021, which is only open to US citizens or permanent residents. The official Olympics site appeared to confirm her status in a January article that referred to Gu's "dual nationality."
Both Clarke and Brownell said the more likely scenario is that China bent its own rules to allow foreign-born athletes to keep two passports, hoping to bolster its Olympic medal count -- long touted by the Chinese government as a sign of national strength.
This strategy might be "an experiment by the Chinese leadership, which will judge the public reaction before deciding whether to move forward with the practice on a larger scale and allowing dual citizenship to athletes," Brownell said.
Chinese officials have carefully avoided the question of Gu's nationality, instead emphasizing her Chinese heritage. She is what the government often refers to as "overseas Chinese" -- foreign nationals of Chinese descent, given that label regardless of their citizenship or how many generations of their family have lived abroad.
Since Xi took office, he has repeatedly asserted that overseas Chinese, too, belong to the nation -- and repeatedly pledged to "unite overseas Chinese" with their relatives in China as part of the "Chinese dream."
It seems that Gu is part of that Chinese dream, with the government and its propaganda machine going full steam in claiming her as their own.
"I have very very deep roots in China," Gu told state broadcaster CCTV, according to state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times. She added that she had been in China when it was announced the Winter Games would be held in Beijing, which is when "I started thinking about competing for China."
In one piece, Xinhua noted that Gu visited Beijing every summer growing up, watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics from the stands, and loves Peking duck and dumplings.
Gu "should be an idol for the whole world," a Chinese fan told the Global Times. "It used to be that people wanted to be American, so why not accept that people want to be Chinese now?"
CNN's Nectar Gan contributed to this report.