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China’s new Olympic stars are affluent, chill and in it for the thrill

China's Su Yiming performs a trick during the men's snowboard big air finals at the Winter Olympics on Feb. 15 in Beijing. (Elsa/Getty Images)

There was no need for the third run. On the strength of his first two scores alone, Chinese snowboarder Su Yiming had secured his first Olympic gold. The pressure off, he savored the moment by floating through a single rotation and took a midair instant to pick out his parents in the crowd in Beijing.

“This moment couldn’t have happened without my parents. Without them, there wouldn’t be me as I am; there wouldn’t be this day,” he told journalists afterward.

Su’s victory in snowboarding big air Tuesday, coming just three days before his 18th birthday, delivered a fitting ending for his barnstorming debut Olympics and secured his position alongside freestyle skier Eileen Gu as the fresh-faced stars of a new generation in Chinese winter sports.

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The teenagers won hearts and medals as they became overnight idols for China’s aspiring snow bums and powder hounds. They also sparked discussion about the role of wealth, education and social status in the pursuit of athletic excellence. With cosmopolitan lifestyles, social media followings and lucrative sponsorship deals, they represent a stark departure from many of the country’s Olympic stars, who often hail from hardscrabble backgrounds and are trained from a young age in state sports academies.

The evolution of Chinese sports, which is coming during a crackdown on private tutoring, “excessive wealth” and obsessive fandom, has many asking this: How could your average Chinese family possibly produce the next Eileen Gu or Su Yiming?

“The state training system is waning in winter sports, with elite sports training giving way to scouting from amateurs and clubs,” Beijing-based sports columnist Yang Wang said. “Su Yiming is a perfect example of this new type of talent scouting. In the future, China will see more and more self-made athletes.”

While the Chinese public met Gu and Su at this Olympics, close followers of China’s winter sports dreams may have already seen the pair in a documentary called “The Aspirations of Youth” released in 2017.

Aside from time on the snow, Gu is shown riding a horse and telling the interviewer, “I do want to be a professional athlete but only so long as it makes me happy.” Asked whether Su would continue as a child actor — yes, he has starred in a movie — or as a snowboarder, his mother, Li Lei, replied, “If he wants to turn his hobby into a job, we will support him.”

As Gu’s gold medal set Chinese social media alight last week, Chinese commentators argued that the American-born and -raised 18-year-old, who scored 1580 on the SAT and is an accomplished pianist and model, was a paradigmatic child of “tiger parenting.” That image was strengthened after her mother, Yan, thanked a crammer class in Beijing’s Haidian district for her academic success.

Although he grew up in China, 17-year-old Su’s life has more in common with Gu’s than with most of his fellow Chinese Olympians. He was a child actor who played a skiing country kid with mussed hair in 2014 blockbuster “The Taking of Tiger Mountain.” He lists surfing, hip-hop and guitar as hobbies on his official Olympics bio.

For many, however, such achievements appear unattainable. “For the majority of Chinese families, if a child cannot make it to America for schooling, then this superior model of ‘American schooling plus Haidian private tutoring’ is not relevant for them,” wrote social commentary blog Slave Society.

The article then drew a jarring comparison between Gu’s privilege and the plight of a mother of eight recently found chained up in a poor village in Jiangsu province. “The reality is, the vast majority of women don’t have an opportunity to become Eileen Gu, but if there is no progress in the legal system or cultural awakening, then everyone could well and truly live through the tragedy of the woman in a dark room in Fengxian County,” it said.

The blog was suspended for 15 days.

China’s Olympic success has traditionally relied on a system of nationwide sports academies that recruit talented children and place them in an environment where they focus on sports above all else.

The lack of a U.S.-style sports culture remains an obstacle for ending this reliance on state-run programs, said Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong who studies China’s Olympic program. “Compared to American or European children who grow up loving sports, society expects Chinese people to pursue academic achievements.”

That has begun to change in recent years as more athletes from affluent backgrounds make it to China’s Olympic squad. Swimmer Wang Shun, who won gold in the 200-meter individual medley at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, has similar star power and is from a wealthy background.

But rags-to-podium stories remain common. At the other end of the spectrum is Quan Hongchan, the 14-year-old diver whose gold medal made her the breakout star of the Tokyo Games. Quan, born to a farming family in rural Guangdong, had a childhood dedicated to diving after she was recruited by a local sporting academy when she was 7.

After her win, Quan told reporters that she was motivated to train harder because she wanted to make more money to cure her ill mother, and she disclosed that she had never been to an amusement park or the zoo.

Much of China’s medal count this year still relies on these national training programs. Chinese speedskaters, for example, overwhelmingly come from a single location: Qitaihe, a coal-mining town in the northeast of the country that became a national training hub after local skater Yang Yang became China’s first Winter Olympic gold medalist in 2002.

Skater Fan Kexin, who won gold this month as part of the short-track mixed relay team, has described how she used to live in a single room with her parents, who worked as cobblers.

But Chinese commentators have noticed a different vibe among younger members of the team. “From Su Yiming, you can see that the new generation are less frightened of taking the stage and can take delight in sport for itself,” said Cathy Tu, the founder of an education consultancy in Beijing.

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Su and Gu have been seized upon by Chinese state-run media as embodying the confidence and “zest” of Team China athletes born since 2000. “They no longer look up to the West and are proud of being Chinese,” Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University, told the Global Times newspaper.

That possessive nationalist rhetoric clashes, however, with the increasing numbers of Chinese athletes who consider themselves members of a global sporting community. Gu maintains she is American when in America and Chinese when in China. Su, who will soon graduate from a foreign languages high school in the southwestern city of Chengdu, considers North American snowboarding greats to be his idols.

A similar dynamic exists in hockey, where internationalization has driven the sport’s development. Not only are China’s men’s and women’s teams both heavily dependent on foreign-born players, few of the Chinese-born players hail from the northeastern cities that are the traditional base for state-led training programs.

Instead, Chinese players are mostly graduates of youth clubs that cater to well-to-do families in major cities. Many later played in North America. Rudi Ying, 23-year-old forward, for example, is son of well-known director Ying Da and has played back and forth between China and North America since he was 9.

For China’s burgeoning middle-class and affluent families, winter sports already have become a status symbol. “Not every Chinese wants to become a national sports hero like the basketball legend Yao Ming,” commentator Feng Zhen wrote for Hong Kong-based Phoenix New Media. “But everyone wants to live like Eileen Gu.”

But Tu, the education consultancy founder, urged people to “stay awake” and recognize the outsize role that affluence plays in these athletes’ success. “Most of the kids who can pursue their dreams to follow interests in music or sports still come from rich families,” she said.

Zhang Shaobo, director of “The Aspirations of Youth” documentary, counters that while China is wealthy enough to produce many similar athletes, hard work is still a massive factor.

“In China, there are many families that are richer than Su and Gu,” he told the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper. “Why is there only one Su Yiming, one Eileen Gu? Actually, aside from talent, they have put in way more effort than everyone imagines.”

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