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Eileen Gu’s gold at Beijing Olympics ignites celebrations in host country

Eileen Gu, the American-Chinese freestyle skier and one of the most closely watched stars at the Beijing Winter Olympics, has won her first gold medal, prompting celebrations across the country and pushing the hosts to the top of the medals table.

Gu, 18, was born in the US to a Chinese mother and an American father but chose in 2019 to represent China at the Olympics. She is among the most marketed athletes at the Beijing Games, with lucrative sponsorship deals in the host county for brands including Bank of China and China Mobile and has modeled for Louis Vuitton, the French fashion house.

Her victory in the first big air freestyle skiing event at an Olympics could become a defining moment at an event that aims to introduce more than 300m people in China to winter sports but has been dominated by strict measures to contain Covid-19. Tags including Gu’s name took up seven of the top-10 trending spots on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, where she has close to 2m followers and was described as a “pride of China”.

“It is the biggest honor, the biggest dream, to win gold here today, especially in front of this amazing crowd which I know is not easy to have here,” Gu said, as she answered questions in English and Mandarin at a venue next to a former steel mill on Beijing’s outskirts.

Gu declined to answer multiple questions on the status of her citizenship but said she spent 25-30 per cent of each year in China while growing up.

Eileen Gu posts after winning the women's freestyle skiing big air event

Gu, who was born in the US, decided in 2019 to represent China at the Beijing Games, where she has become one of the most heavily promoted athletes © Matt Slocum / AP

She is one of several overseas-born Chinese athletes competing at the Games. But the exuberant response to her victory was in sharp contrast to a wave of social media scorn directed at Zhu Yi, a 19-year-old US-born figure skater who fell during a team performance. Hu Xijin, a commentator at the Global Times, a state-affiliated tabloid, said Zhu’s criticism was “uncalled for.”

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, described the big air freestyle skiing event as an “incredible competition” and watched alongside Peng Shuai, the tennis star who has been at the center of a controversy after alleging and then retracting sexual assault allegations against a former senior Chinese official.

Peng made the accusations in a post on her official Weibo account that was deleted soon after it was published and she largely disappeared from public view.

Bach held a video call with Peng before the Games and the IOC said on Monday that he and Shuai had dinner at the weekend in Beijing. But the scandal has raised criticism of the IOC’s relationship with China.

Peng also gave her first sit-down interview with foreign media this week, telling L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper, that she had “never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way”. Many of the newspaper’s questions were vetted and a representative of China’s Olympic committee was present for the interview.

The Women’s Tennis Association, which suspended events in mainland China in the wake of Peng’s allegations, said on Tuesday that a formal investigation was still required. Steve Simon, WTA chair, added that the interview “does not alleviate any of our concerns about her initial post”.

The gold medal, which Gu secured with a 1,620-degree trick, took China’s total tally to five.

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing

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