Another U.S.-born female athlete representing China has drawn the spotlight. But unlike freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who has charmed Chinese audiences, the case of Zhu Yi has highlighted the fickleness of the nation’s fans.
The response reflects the narrow path that athletes such as Zhu and Gu are trying to walk. On one side, they face blowback in the United States for having chosen to compete on behalf of China. On the other side, the Chinese public’s welcome is conditional on maintaining their stellar performance.
Zhu told reporters Sunday that she was upset and felt pressure because she knew many in China were surprised that she was the women’s singles pick for Beijing’s team.
“I just really wanted to show them what I was able to do, but unfortunately I didn’t,” she said, according to Reuters.
On Chinese social media, commentators questioned why an American-born athlete was representing China. Zhu was criticized for a lack of fluency in the language and for her “privileged” background; her father is a computer scientist whose career has straddled the United States and China.
After she fell to the ice Sunday, the hashtag #ZhuYiFellDown was viewed more than 230 million times on the Weibo social media platform before censors stepped in. By Monday, the visible posts about her on Weibo were largely supportive ones. Prominent state-backed pundits weighed in urging positivity.
“China’s Internet users largely like Eileen Gu, but today some people’s criticism of Zhu Yi was rude, and it’s uncalled for,” wrote Hu Xijin, the influential former editor in chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, in a Weibo post Sunday that received 131,000 likes.
He added that fans would need to become accustomed to foreign-born athletes such as Zhu as China increasingly recruits talent from overseas. “This sports-driven reverse immigration is a new product of the times,” he wrote.
The controversy over Zhu has drawn comparisons to Gu, the 18-year-old who is the world’s top female freestyle skier and a professional model. Gu also grew up as an American in California before choosing to compete for China in the Olympics. Gu has been embraced in China but has drawn anger from some in America for taking her talents overseas.
The hostility toward athletes who straddle the United States and China has been intensified by geopolitics. U.S.-China relations are at their worst in decades as Beijing’s bid to become a world power has sparked broad clashes with Washington on issues ranging from defense to trade and cultural influence.
For Zhu, the pressure was on as the sole entrant for China in women’s singles. China has not medaled in the women’s singles figure skating competition at the Olympics since 1998, when Chen Lu won bronze in Nagano.
Zhu was talked up in the domestic press ahead of her competition. Chinese media outlets touted her as a “skating prodigy” who chose China over America. “A sincere patriotic heart, an elegant ice dance,” one Chinese article trumpeted last week.
After Zhu’s first fall Sunday, a slew of online commentators compared her unfavorably to another Chinese female figure skater, Chen Hongyi, who had been passed over for the slot in favor of Zhu. Some angry fans took the opportunity to unleash anti-American vitriol.
Others urged the public to support Zhu. “Please give our own athletes tolerance and applause,” wrote Hu Huali, an executive of a Shanghai-based tech company.
Zhu’s latest post on her Instagram account, where she goes by her English-language name Beverly, is from late last month. She wrote that she was grateful to be representing China at the Olympics.
“Especially after having a couple rough years, I’m so grateful for those who helped me push past the negative thoughts and injuries; helping me grow throughout this journey,” she wrote. “Hoping to show everyone how hard I’ve worked and put the best version of myself out there on the ice!”
In July 2018, Zhu wrote on Instagram that she had “stabbed my foot through my skate” in a rough fall, requiring five stitches. She wrote that three months earlier she had injured her Achilles’ tendon and suffered an avulsion fracture in her foot.
After winning its bid for the 2022 Games, China embarked on a global effort to recruit promising winter sports athletes who could boost its medal count. Many winter sports, such as skiing and ice skating, are just beginning to become popular with the general public in China, and few children grew up training in them.
Beijing has also plucked athletes from other sports, notably diving and gymnastics, to retrain in winter sports for the 2022 Games.
China was fourth in the medal table Monday, with two golds and two silvers, trailing Sweden, the Russian Olympic Committee and the Netherlands.
Lyric Li contributed to this report.
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