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Eileen Gu came from behind and won with a big-air trick that has only been successfully landed twice by a woman

Eileen Gu of China performs a trick ahead of the women's freestyle skiing Big Air final in Beijing on Feb. 8. She would ski to a gold medal in the event.Justin Setterfield/Getty Images


The rule for all Olympic crowds is no cheering and no crowding. Sit one seat apart. Clap if you must. But keep all droplets to yourself.

And then Eileen Gu showed up.

Beijing’s Olympic blueprint is pretty simple. Acquire another Games; repurpose existing facilities to accommodate winter sports; unleash Gu.

Her appearance at the Big Air final was as close as this Games has come to pandemonium. Social distancing went out the window. Cheering was general. At the most emphatic moments, a few masks came off. And that was before her remarkable come-from-behind gold medal performance.

She was second after the first jump and third after the second.

Needing something spectacular, Gu performed a jump that only two women have ever successfully planted in competition. She’s the second. The first had taken place about 45 minutes earlier. “I didn’t even know Eileen had that trick,” Canada’s Megan Oldham, who finished fourth, said afterward.

As her winning score came up, and just for a minute, you imagined yourself watching a normal Olympics. By the time they roll her out again on Sunday, it will be full-on Beatlemania.

Only 18 years old, Gu’s media polish is already at a high shine. The likes of Tom Brady could only wish to be this charismatic while saying things that are this boring.

“I’m so grateful for everything China has done for this Olympics,” Gu said. “I’m not here to beat other people. I’m here to push myself to the limit.”

She appeared to give similar answers in Mandarin and English – same intonations, same hand gestures. If it’s a script, it works as both a sales pitch, as well as a shield from criticism.

Gu's golden moment: Her medal ceremony, top, and an earlier broadcast of her victory in Beijing.Tyrone Siu/Reuters; Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Largely unknown even a week ago outside China and X-Games circles, Gu’s backstory is suddenly a topic of general conversation.

She is the gift America (unwillingly) gave China – a California born, raised and trained freestyle skier who arrives here primed for multimedia stardom. She is the star who chose China (via her mother’s heritage).

According to some reports, she’s already making $20-million a year from Chinese endorsements. And that was before she’d done anything truly noteworthy.

She arrived at the big air final like Caesar coming into the forum. Every twitch elicited trills.

All the proper notes for an Olympic opening night had been hit – the huge build-up, the mild disappointment in qualifying (5th), the impossible pressure of the moment.

How big was this? IOC president Thomas Bach schlepped all the way out to the fringes of the city’s endless downtown to be there. Getting name-checked in the Closing Ceremonies? That’s love. Spending an hour in Beijing traffic? That’s respect.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai watches the Big Air finals.Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

Even Chinese tennis player and (if you ask women’s tennis authorities) possible political prisoner Peng Shuai was there. Bach said afterward that he’d sat with Peng, that she was leaving the closed loop and going into quarantine before going home.

If this was her last public appearance, it’s telling that Peng chose to dovetail it with Gu’s emergence.

Peng, Bach’s relationship with Peng, Gu’s relationship with China - that’s a lot of controversial storylines meeting in one place. Through the washing machine of sport, they all come out laundered by victory.

Four days in and everybody’s already tired of yelling about geopolitics. A potential COVID meltdown hasn’t materialized. There is no unspooling multi-day outrage to focus on.

So, as it always does, the focus has narrowed onto sport. Who’s winning what?

Other countries need to win in bulk, across disciplines. China – no Winter Games power – has a more focused approach. If Gu does the business, that vindicates their billion-dollar party.

Industrial buildings loom behind Gu during her performance at a Feb. 7 qualifying round.Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

Big Air was the correct place to begin this marketing assault.

The facility – a winter waterslide built in a derelict industrial zone – is an awesome venue. Not necessarily in a good way.

Surrounded by decommissioned nuclear-style smokestacks, it’s got a ‘Blade-Runner-before-the-yuppies-moved-in’ vibe. Alluring and vaguely horrifying, it may be the most 21st century sports setting in the world.

Big Air itself is the prototype ‘new’ Olympic sport. Visually impressive; a lot of fun; more than a bit silly. It’s sports for people who don’t have much patience for sports. Those people buy sneakers, too.

Gu has two more chances at gold, but she is already a total triumph. First impressions matter in a lot of places, but nowhere so much as an Olympics. She is now cemented in the public imagination as the comeback kid.

Whatever happens next just adds to the legend.

That makes the next week and a bit a kind of masterclass in modern sports marketing.

Used to be, being a great sportswoman or man meant you were really good at running/throwing/scoring. Not any more.

Ask Mike Trout. He may be the best baseball player who ever lived, and you couldn’t pick him out of a three-man line-up at spring break in Ft. Lauderdale.

These days, you need a full array of interests and entry points in order to diversify your content creation.

Watch Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris work a mixed-zone. He may be freezing and tired and, sure, he’s not the gold medallist, but nobody is hitting his marks harder.

Still chipper; still delivering the same practised punchlines; still pumping his sponsors’ tires. That is modern athletics.

An advertisement features Gu at an Anta store at a Beijing shopping mall.Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Gu isn’t just the entire package. She’s the manufacturer and the delivery system. She has the quality, the look and the polish, without any dangerous tendency to run off script.

Her CV is so perfect – a bilingual best-in-class who’s a fashion influencer, a would-be supermodel, a goofy tomboy and a Stanford STEM freshman – that you suspect she was lab-generated.

If you ask Gu why she switched America for China, you’ll get a boilerplate answer about “the opportunity to inspire millions of young people where my mom was born.”

She gave a version of it again at the big air competition. She was self-aware enough to begin it by saying, “My message has been the same forever …”

Yes, of course. What tween doesn’t see an attractive stranger doing backflips on skis and think, ‘Maybe I can be president!’

But she’s right inasmuch as she has now joined the global sporting power elite. What she does from here on out is news.

Only a few athletes belong in that club and most of them play professionally year-round. Gu’s got another ten days to make her pitch.

All she must do is win again, and then not say anything anyone can wrap an outraged headline around.

So far, so good.

One down. Conquering the whole world still to go.


How does Olympic freestyle skiing work? A visual guide

BEIJING 2022

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

FEBRUARY

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

Speed, showmanship and the ability to perform aerial manoeuvres whilst skiing is the essence of freestyle skiing. The discipline was contested as a demonstration sport at Calgary 1988 and made its Olympic debut with mogul events at Albertville 1992. Freestyle skiing was affectionately known as ‘hotdogging’ in the 1970s.

Athletes are evaluated on overall composition of the run, sequence and variety of tricks, the amount of risk in the routine, and how they use the course

Ski boots protect against jolts and bumps

Helmet is mandatory

Gloves are compulsory

Ski poles facilitate balance and enable stopping

Goggles protect eyes against weather and UV rays

EVOLUTION OF EVENTS

1992

1994

1998

2002

2006

2010

2014

2018

2022

Moguls

Aerials

Ski Cross

Halfpipe,

Slopestyle

Big Air

Moguls

Athletes ski down a slope while negotiating a series of bumps or moguls, performing two jumps along the way.

75m–125m

Length

200m–250m

Aerials

Athletes ski down a short in-run before launching themselves into the air and performing tricks for style points.

45m–55m

Length

115m–135m

Ski Cross

Four racers in each qualifying heat race down the course in a single knockout run. The top two advance to next round.

180m–250m

Length

800m–1,200m

Halfpipe

Competitors go from one side to the other and perform tricks while in the air above the sides of the pipe.

40m–50m

Length

155m–195m

Slopestyle

Athletes perform spins, flips, grinds and grabs on a mix of technical street-style obstacles and launch ramps.

125m–175m

Length

500m–600m

Big Air

Skiers ride down a ramp to launch off a large ski jump that propels them into the air where they perform tricks.

40m–

50m

Length

125m–175m

SOURCE: REUTERS

BEIJING 2022

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

FEBRUARY

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

Speed, showmanship and the ability to perform aerial manoeuvres whilst skiing is the essence of freestyle skiing. The discipline was contested as a demonstration sport at Calgary 1988 and made its Olympic debut with mogul events at Albertville 1992. Freestyle skiing was affectionately known as ‘hotdogging’ in the 1970s.

Athletes are evaluated on overall composition of the run, sequence and variety of tricks, the amount of risk in the routine, and how they use the course

Ski boots protect against jolts and bumps

Helmet is mandatory

Gloves are compulsory

Ski poles facilitate balance and enable stopping

Goggles protect eyes against weather and UV rays

EVOLUTION OF EVENTS

1992

1994

1998

2002

2006

2010

2014

2018

2022

Moguls

Aerials

Ski Cross

Halfpipe,

Slopestyle

Big Air

Moguls

Athletes ski down a slope while

negotiating a series of bumps

or moguls, performing two

jumps along the way.

75m–125m

Length

200m–250m

Aerials

Athletes ski down a short in-run

before launching themselves

into the air and performing

tricks for style points.

45m–55m

Length

115m–135m

Ski Cross

Four racers in each qualifying heat

race down the course in a single

knockout run. The top two

advance to next round.

180m–250m

Length

800m–1,200m

Halfpipe

Competitors go from one side to

the other and perform tricks

while in the air above the

sides of the pipe.

40m–50m

Length

155m–195m

Slopestyle

Athletes perform spins, flips,

grinds and grabs on a mix of

technical street-style obstacles

and launch ramps.

125m–175m

Length

500m–600m

Big Air

Skiers ride down a ramp to launch

off a large ski jump that propels

them into the air where they

perform tricks.

40m–

50m

Length

125m–175m

SOURCE: REUTERS

BEIJING 2022

FEBRUARY

SCHEDULE

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

Qualification

Medal

Speed, showmanship and the ability to perform aerial manoeuvres whilst skiing is the essence of freestyle skiing. The discipline was contested as a demonstration sport at Calgary 1988 and made its Olympic debut with mogul events at Albertville 1992. Freestyle skiing was affectionately known as ‘hotdogging’ in the 1970s.

Athletes are evaluated on overall composition of the run, sequence and variety of tricks, the amount of risk in the routine, and how they use the course

Ski poles facilitate balance and enable stopping

Ski boots protect against jolts and bumps

Helmet is mandatory

Goggles protect eyes against weather and UV rays

Gloves are compulsory

EVOLUTION OF EVENTS

1992

1994

1998

2002

2006

2010

2014

2018

2022

Moguls

Aerials

Ski Cross

Big Air

Halfpipe,

Slopestyle

Moguls

Athletes ski down a slope while negotiating a series of bumps or moguls, performing two jumps along the way.

Aerials

Athletes ski down a short in-run before launching themselves into the air and performing tricks for style points.

75m–125m

45m–55m

Length

200m–250m

Length

115m–135m

Ski Cross

Four racers in each qualifying heat race down the course in a single knockout run. The top two advance to next round.

Halfpipe

Competitors go from one side to the other and perform tricks while in the air above the sides of the pipe.

180m–250m

40m–50m

Length

800m–1,200m

Length

155m–195m

Slopestyle

Athletes perform spins, flips, grinds and grabs on a mix of technical street-style obstacles and launch ramps.

Big Air

Skiers ride down a ramp to launch off a large ski jump that propels them into the air where they perform tricks.

40m–

50m

125m–175m

Length

500m–600m

Length

125m–175m

SOURCE: REUTERS

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