With her medal-winning freeskiing and can-do spirit, American-born Chinese free skier Eileen Gu has dominated the media’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics. But that global fascination has also been ignited by a streak of controversy.
Questions of Gu’s citizenship, her decision to compete for China and silence regarding China’s human rights violations has stoked some of the interest in the high-flying athlete. Born and raised in California, Gu, whose mother is Chinese and father is American, announced she would compete for China at the Winter Games in 2019. That decision and her subsequent performance have resulted in glory and multimillion endorsement deals. Her 20-plus sponsors have helped her rack up a reported $42 million-plus in earnings since January 2021, according to the news agency Tianxiashangwang.
With a gold medal in Big Air and a silver in Slopestyle, the 18-year-old aims to add a third medal in the Halfpipe. Win or lose, major brands are locked in with Gu, whose worldwide appeal eclipses the influential American and Chinese markets. But several of her endorsers declined to comment about the controversy around her at the Winter Games. After qualifying for the Halfpipe finals Thursday, Gu told the media, “People sometimes don’t know what to do with other people when they’re not fitting into a box. They say, ‘Is she Chinese? Is she American? Is she a model? Is she a student? Why is she trying to change the world when she’s only 18?’”
Gu, who reportedly became a Chinese national at 15, has said repeatedly that inspiring children and women to participate in winter sports, is her objective. She told the media Thursday, “I’m not trying to solve political problems right now. And I’m aware that I’m not able to do everything I want to do in this exact moment.”
Executives at Oakley, Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton declined to comment when asked to address Gu’s decision to compete for China, the question of Gu’s citizenship and her not addressing the allegations of China’s human rights abuses. Nor, did they comment about how Gu’s Olympic success may have impacted site traffic and sales at their respective companies.
Given the diplomatic boycott by the U.S. and its view of China’s mass detention and re-education program aimed at Uyghur Muslims being genocidal, Gu’s endorsers are in a precarious place. Separately, many brands rely on factories in China for hundreds of billions of dollars worth of production for consumer goods.
Asked about the apparent silent strategy by Gu’s sponsors, Richard Sheehan, professor emeritus of finance at the University of Notre Dame, noted the backlash and potential boycott that the National Basketball Association faced after Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019. Referring to the apparent silent approach by Gu’s sponsors, Sheehan said, “The safest thing for any of the sponsors to do is to basically do nothing. It shows that when it comes to profits or Uyghur genocide, they’ll take the quiet road. If they say something supportive, they’re going to lose a lot in China and they’re not going to gain a lot in the U.S. If they don’t say a lot, they’ll lose a little bit in the U.S., but perhaps gain a lot in China.”
He added, “Just looking at the risk-reward ratio, I would be very much surprised if you get any word out of any of her sponsors. It’s not a smart strategy. I think it’s reprehensible, but I’m not their audience.”
Executives at some of the other companies that Gu endorses, Victoria’s Secret, Estée Lauder, Red Bull, Beats by Dre, Kohler, Faction Skis and Anta did not acknowledge multiple media requests. A spokeswoman for the Women’s Sports Foundation also declined comment. Cadillac, which enlisted Gu as a brand ambassador in China last September, was one exception. Stefan Cross, senior manager of product and brand communications a company spokesman, said in a statement, “Cadillac champions big dreams and bold ambitions, and congratulates Eileen on her iconic achievements. We are very proud of Eileen winning the gold medal in the women’s free ski Big Air event.”
As for how Gu’s Olympic success may have spiked Cadillac’s site traffic and sales, Cross indicated “it is too early to try and attribute this achievement to any recent changes in Cadillac business.”
More than 10 years into her freeskiing career, the adrenaline-loving professional is adept at tackling 22-foot halfpipes and landing the double-cork 1440 rotations. Admittedly “in love with fear,” Gu overruled her mother’s advice for her final Big Air run and pulled off a 1620 — four and a half rotations for the first time in competition. Gu spelled out her fear-loving ways in a Feb. 6 New York Times essay, explaining that fear comes down to excitement, uncertainty and pressure. And there is more at stake than just championship wins and keeping existing sponsors happy. Addressing the pressure quotient, Gu wrote, “Expectations of family and friends, a competitive streak or even sponsorship opportunities can provide the scaffolding for a high-pressure environment.”
That said, Gu appears to be a quick study in the branding game, having had the wherewithal to remove her Anta gloves on the medal stand to show off a Tiffany bracelet and four rings and always keeping her Faction skis in the camera frame, when awaiting scores post-runs. NBC, of course, is also all-in with Gu’s megawatt status. The ever-smiling Californian was one of a handful American Olympians that the network banked much of its coverage on, and unlike other favorites like snowboarder Shaun White and downhill skier Mikaela Shiffrin, Gu has delivered athletically. Although NBC has seen some record-low ratings for viewership, NBC Sports is trying to buoy interest with such online posts as “Watch: Eileen Gu Qualifies for Finals, Enjoys a Sandwich While Awaiting Results.”
John Davis, author of “Olympic Games Effect: How Sports Marketing Builds Strong Brands,” noted that athletes competing for different countries other than where they live, were born or have citizenship happens regularly. “What makes her newsworthy today has more to do with the geopolitical landscape,” he said, adding that being one of the world’s best Olympic athletes at the age of 18 are other factors. Davis said he “takes Gu at her word that she chose to compete for China to inspire millions of people in China especially young girls, about sports and focus on the cause of gender equality for athletes. Those are significant issues in their own right, but they do not obligate her to also opine on other geopolitical issues as much as the media and public opinion want her to.”
Davis, chair of Brand New View, speculated that sponsors are staying quiet about the controversies surrounding her so that the attention is on “her sports accomplishments and her optimistic, [and] even inspiring personality.”
”We place outsized expectations on top athletes to be role models, arbiters of public opinion and politically savvy (as long as they agree with our point of view). This is not to excuse the human right abuses in China, as those are clearly of deep concern,” he said. “It is simply to say that Eileen is an athlete first, and a very good one, who has garnered the support of many sports fans and attracted sponsors. She is an ambassador for sport, not politics. That may change in the years ahead, if her international reputation grows, but for now she appears to simply be focused on having a positive public image without touching third-rail issues”
Gu has amassed a digital reach estimated to be hundreds of millions of impressions and views, according to Michael Naraine, assistant professor of sport management at Brock University. “Eileen has a very long runway. Similar to Chloe Kim, she is an Olympic gold medalist at age 18, which opens the door to a bevy of endorsement deals and high-profile activities for the foreseeable future. It also helps that the next Winter Olympic Games are going to be in one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milan, which [could] increase her nonathletic endeavors with fashion modeling,” he said.
The global zeal for Gu is not at all surprising to Naraine, who said athletes that can span multiple nationalities and/or cultures break through the unidimensional mould of just rooting for homeland favorites. In doing so, they captivate multiple audiences, he said.
Noting how other women athletes like Eugenia Bouchard and Anna Kournikova have embraced the high-profile spotlight without reaching the pinnacle of their athletic pursuits, Naraine said Gu has proven that she can do both, which presents “a high-value proposition for sponsors given her global reach.”
As an IMG model and a bilingual athlete, Gu will likely continue to be highly sought-after by brands that want to be associated with prestige and winning, and leverage multiple markets of importance, according to Naraine. Her ability to shoot campaigns in English and Mandarin will spare the need for voiceovers or subtitles and that authenticity will resonate with consumers in those markets, he said.
Gu has also faced scorn on social media after suggesting on Instagram that anyone can download a virtual private network for free on the App Store. Social media apps like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, as well as most Western news sites, are blocked in China.
Sheehan summed up Gu’s statement relating to Instagram and VPNs as misleading and a mistake. “However, the point that most of the criticism has missed is that she’s 18. She may have had some media training and be media savvy, but she’s still a teenager. To get where she is, she may not have a lot of exposure in some dimensions, but she’s likely been extremely limited in her connections in other dimensions. None of that excuses her from making an ignorant statement, but it’s important context that generally has been omitted from reporting.”