Naturalised Chinese figure skater Zhu Yi's multiple falls at the Beijing Winter Olympics set off a wave of online public opinion crusades, and the naturalised athlete topic continues to heat up this week.
In fact, China’s naturalised athlete policy already came under scrutiny last week, as the Chinese men’s football team was eliminated from the Fifa World Cup in the qualifying round after losing to Vietnam. The naturalised players on the team did not perform up to expectations, and were even thought of as duds.
With no comparison, there would be no harm done.
While both are naturalised athletes, 19-year-old Zhu Yi (Beverly Zhu) and 18-year-old Eileen Gu have elicited different reactions from the Chinese people at this year’s Winter Olympics. The former has been mercilessly criticised, while the latter is the people’s darling. Other highly scrutinised teams with a high number of naturalised athletes include China’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams, as well as China’s men’s football team. The latter was mocked for the “Hanoi tragedy” of losing 3-1 to Vietnam in the Fifa World Cup qualifiers.
Naturalised athletes need to show even more skill and spirit
Simply put, naturalised athletes are those who willingly gain citizenship in a country outside of their country of birth.
Going by internet comments, the key question in whether naturalised athletes gain approval is whether they have the skills and the ability?
Why are the comments for Zhu and Gu so different? Why are the naturalised members of the national football team getting criticised? As netizens say: being a noob is the original sin.
Some also felt Zhu’s falls were a direct slap in the face of the naturalisation policy, and called for sports to be returned to the public, and to stop advocating naturalisation.
Zhu Yi made obvious mistakes during her routine in the figure skating team event on 6 February, falling and missing her jumps, bringing the China team down from third to fifth and barely making it to the next round. “Zhu Yi fell” became the most popular topic on Weibo, garnering 200 million views in a few short hours; a post that said “Shame on you!” (丢人丢到家) got some 12,000 likes and replies. Zhu continued to fall in the competition on the morning of 7 February, ending at the bottom of five skaters with 91.41 points.
Competitive sports is a cruel arena, and good athletes need to be mentally tough. Zhu broke down after her errors, drawing more criticism from netizens that she was not mentally strong: “Crying before it’s over, that’s detestable.” Some also felt Zhu’s falls were a direct slap in the face of the naturalisation policy, and called for sports to be returned to the public, and to stop advocating naturalisation. However, some netizens also urged people: “It’s OK if you don’t like her, but don’t crush her!”
Netizens’ dissatisfaction with Zhu’s performance also extended to criticising her Chinese language ability — at one point, there was a rumour that she declined to be interviewed by CCTV, but a Weibo account with the handle “Zhu Yi’s Growth Record” (朱易的成长记录) debunked that claim by posting a video clip of her interview with CCTV after the competition. Some netizens spoke up for her, saying: “You can call her a noob, but don’t mindlessly follow the online mob without knowing the facts.”
In comparison, Chinese-American Eileen Gu — raised by her maternal grandmother who does not know English — speaks fluent Chinese and can even do some tongue twisters.
Gu competed in the Beijing Winter Olympics for the first time on 7 February, and while she made an error on her second jump, she made it to the finals with her steady showing on her other two jumps. And on 8 February, she won her first gold medal in the Women’s Freestyle Skiing Big Air final. One of China’s hopes at this Olympics is to break the adage of being strong on ice but weak on snow, and Gu, known as a “genius girl” in the global skiing scene, definitely brings hope and joy for the Chinese team.
Beijing accent, serious skills, and good looks: Eileen Gu is a goddess to most Chinese netizens, and a red-hot publicity darling, with at least 25 endorsements or collaborations.
Chinese football commentator Liu Jianhong said compared to the naturalised Chinese football players, Gu represents a direction that is more acceptable to the Chinese people — with a Western-looking visage speaking Chinese with an authentic Beijing accent, “there is no incongruity” in a naturalised athlete representing China at the Winter Olympics.
In 2019, the 15-year-old Gu — before even coming of age — announced that she would represent China at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The Wall Street Journal reported that Red Bull, one of Gu’s main sponsors, said on its website that Gu decided to give up her American passport to compete for China in Beijing. However, following media queries, Red Bull removed the line. Reports say that anyone who renounces citizenship is put on a list by the IRS, but Gu’s name does not appear in the IRS’ Quarterly Publication of Individuals Who Have Chosen to Expatriate, nor has she explicitly said she has renounced her US citizenship.
...when a naturalised athlete is selected, a local-born athlete is not.
One comment on zhihu.com is that Gu is in a “grey area”, just as she has defined herself in terms of her dual identity: “When I’m in the US, I’m American. When I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”
China does not recognise dual citizenship, and questions remain over Gu’s citizenship, but this has not affected her immense popularity. “Eileen Gu’s first outing at the Beijing Olympics” was a top search on Weibo on 7 February, showing that the skills and ability of naturalised citizens are the key to popular approval.
Naturalised athletes come under intense scrutiny
In any country, compared to local-born athletes, the performance of naturalised athletes would be scrutinised with a magnifying glass, simply because when a naturalised athlete is selected, a local-born athlete is not.
This is also why in terms of public opinion, quite a few netizens feel indignant that local-born Chinese athlete Chen Hongyi was not selected. Logically, naturalised athletes have to be better than local-born athletes in order to take their place. So, if they do not perform up to expectations and do not show the fighting spirit as they should, they would inevitably be targets of criticism.
Chinese netizens — who detest special privilege — have even implied that Zhu Yi got in “through the back door” via connections, because her father is Zhu Songchun, dean of the Institute for Artificial Intelligence (IAI) at Peking University (PKU). This drew the attention of former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, who posted on Weibo criticising the online mob, and saying that speculation of Zhu getting selected through the back door was “ludicrous”.
According to public information, Zhu Songchun has plenty of clout.
He was born in Ezhou, Hebei. After graduating from the University of Science and Technology of China, he went to the US to further his studies, earning a PhD in computer science from Harvard. He is a global expert on computer vision, and a three-time nominee and one-time winner of the David Marr Prize, the top international award in computer vision. He put together the world’s first big data annotation team, while the “Dark Matter of AI” concept that he single-handedly established fills the technical and commercial gaps in strong AI currently on the mainstream market, and the media calls him the pride of the Chinese in computer vision. In November 2020, Zhu Songchun became dean of the IAI at PKU, and is leading PKU and Tsinghua University in starting a joint experimental class in artificial general intelligence.
Naturalised athletes help China achieve the goal of competing in all events
China’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams, which have a large number of naturalised athletes, attracted widespread attention prior to the Winter Olympics because of the sheer number of mixed-race or Western faces on the team. While figure skater Zhu became the first target of attacks on the internet, the diversity of the Chinese ice hockey teams did not stir up much criticism. This may be unexpected, but it again highlights the importance of ability, finesse and mental strength.
After the Chinese women’s ice hockey team beat Denmark 3-1 and won the crucial battle for qualification on 4 February, Xinmin Evening News enthusiastically reported that the ice hockey team is much stronger than the football team although both teams have naturalised athletes.
But losing points is not that big of an issue as long as the athletes remain determined and have a fighting spirit — they will still get applause.
Strong competition from European and American ice hockey teams makes it extremely difficult for the Chinese men’s and women’s ice hockey teams to earn a spot on the podium. But losing points is not that big of an issue as long as the athletes remain determined and have a fighting spirit — they will still get applause.
Statistics from Shanghai Observer (上观新闻) show that more than half of the players in China’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams are naturalised athletes: 15 out of 25 players on the men’s ice hockey team, and 13 out of 23 players on the women’s ice hockey team. That is to say, out of a total of 48 athletes on both teams, 28 of them are naturalised players. Another characteristic of this group of naturalised athletes is that most of them have Chinese ancestry — only six out of these 28 players do not.
Among the naturalised ice hockey players, some are Chinese whose parents had settled down overseas, some are mixed-race with either of their parents or their grandparents being Chinese, while some others had been adopted by North American families when they were still a child. For example, Enlai Zheng, who was born to a Chinese mother and German father; Zach Yuen, who was born in Canada; and Jason Fram, who was also born in Canada to a Singaporean Chinese mother and a British father.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) stipulates that all foreign players wanting to represent another country at the Olympics must have stayed in the new country for at least two years and played for the country’s national team. In fact, the Chinese ice hockey team is not the first team to recruit naturalised players to compete in the Winter Olympics. At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the South Korean ice hockey team recruited seven naturalised white players who had originally come from Canada and the US.
Why did the Chinese ice hockey team recruit so many naturalised athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics this year?
Based on media reports, there are two main reasons for this: a lack of ice hockey talent, and the host city’s important mission to achieve the goal of competing in all events.
While ice hockey is popular in European and American regions, it is not so in China. In the past, China mainly clinched gold medals in short track speed skating, freestyle ski aerials, figure skating, and speed skating at the Winter Olympics. Gao Hongqun, deputy director of the Qiqihar Sports Bureau pointed out that, unlike other sports, ice hockey allows body collisions, which gives European and American athletes an advantage with their larger physique.
China’s men’s ice hockey team only made its debut at the Winter Olympics this year, while the women’s ice hockey team returned to the Olympics after an absence of 12 years. The women’s team had its best performance when it was ranked fourth during the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.
China News Weekly and Qianjiang Evening News reported that China’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams were given an automatic spot in 2018 as Beijing was the host of the Winter Olympics in 2022. But the IIHF even considered pulling the Chinese hockey team out of the Winter Olympics last year for fear of a crushing defeat by the Chinese team.
Since China is not a winter sports powerhouse, why did it set such a massive goal of wanting to compete in all events for the first time?
However, soon after the last Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, China’s General Administration of Sports released the outline for participation in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics (《2022年北京冬奥会参赛实施纲要》), in which the goal of competing in all events was clearly stated. This meant that the ice hockey team could not withdraw. In other words, China had to participate in all 109 events that it was hosting on its own soil. But about one-third of the events was uncharted territory, which meant that China was starting from zero in those events.
Ice hockey is not only China’s weakness but also a team event — even the intensive training of young players in a short amount of time would not nurture enough local players. As Liu accurately pointed out, having naturalised players enabled China to participate in all events at the Winter Olympics.
Since China is not a winter sports powerhouse, why did it set such a massive goal of wanting to compete in all events for the first time?
Perhaps it feels a need to display comprehensive national power, cohesion and national spirit as the host city — the US did so when it was the host nation, and China wants to prove that it can too. Gou Zhongwen, director of China’s General Administration of Sport, pointed out in an interview with Guangming Daily in 2019 that the US had twice competed in all events at the Winter Olympics when it hosted the Games. He said that China could do the same because the country had a strong sports foundation. Competing in all events also symbolised athletes’ steady resolve and determination, he added, and as long as China had the chance to do so, it would fight to do so.
The China Youth Daily reported that apart from China, only Russia, the US, and the Czech Republic competed in all 15 sports at the Winter Olympics this year.
According to the virtual medal table of Nielsen Holdings’ Gracenote Inc, a metadata company, China is predicted to rank 12th with a medal tally of 13, including six gold medals, at the Games this year. This would be China’s best performance at the Winter Olympics.
When people are used to seeing Chinese faces serving other countries in traditional sports such as table tennis and badminton, they may feel shocked to see Western or mixed-race faces competing for China.
To fight for a moment’s glory or a lifetime of excellence?
When people are used to seeing Chinese faces serving other countries in traditional sports such as table tennis and badminton, they may feel shocked to see Western or mixed-race faces competing for China. However, this is but the free flow of talent, where both the naturalised player and the country of naturalisation have made their own calculations and eventually judged that mutual benefits can be achieved before the naturalisation process is completed. However, such a flow of talent is not merely a transfer of players from clubs or something similar to job-hopping — it has been elevated to the level of representing a country to participate in a competition, which inevitably involves more sensitive issues such as national sentiment and pride.
It is understandable that China recruited naturalised players to “break the duck” in the winter sports that it is inexperienced in and to raise public interest in the event. However, if it wants to consistently achieve good results in the long run, it needs to build an entire ecosystem of infrastructure, youth training and sports culture cultivation.
Naturalisation is just a temporary measure, but nurturing talent lasts a lifetime.
When discussing the naturalisation of athletes, Chinese media often quote basketball star Yao Ming as saying that if China cannot properly solve the talent issue, the country can only fight for a moment’s glory but not a lifetime of excellence.
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