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Olympic freestyle skier Eileen Gu at a Dew Tour event Copper Mountain, Colo., Dec. 18, 2021.James Stukenberg/The New York Times News Service

World champion skier Eileen Gu made her Olympic debut Monday, in the women’s big air qualification round. Ms. Gu is favoured to win at least one, if not three, golds at the Beijing Games, as long as she can keep focused amid a storm of controversy growing in the United States.

Ms. Gu, though she was born, grew up and still lives in California, is representing host China at these Olympics. That choice, which attracted little mainstream attention when she made it in 2019, has seen the 18-year-old vilified by right-wing commentators in the U.S. since the Games began.

On social media, Ms. Gu has been attacked as a “traitor,” while Fox News hosts have called her “ungrateful” and said she was symbolic of those who turn their backs on the United States “in exchange for Chinese riches.” Even one of her former teammates, Winter X Games gold medallist Jen Hudak, has been critical, calling Ms. Gu “opportunistic” for choosing to represent China, scooping up multimillion-dollar endorsement deals that she might not have received as an American athlete.

“She became the athlete she is because she grew up in the United States, where she had access to premier training grounds and coaching that, as a female, she might not have had in China,” Hudak told the New York Post. “I think she would be a different skier if she grew up in China.”

Ms. Gu competes during the women's freestyle skiing big air finals of the 2022 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 8.Matt Slocum/AP

For her part, Ms. Gu – whose mother was born in China, where Ms. Gu spent most of her summers – said she made the decision in order to help raise the profile of freestyle skiing in her ancestral country. “Having been introduced to the sport growing up in the U.S., I wanted to encourage Chinese skiers the same way my American role models inspired me,” she wrote on Instagram last week. “I’ve always said my goal is to globally spread the sport I love to kids, especially girls, and to shift sport culture toward one motivated by passion.”

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Beijing has said it wants to engage 300 million people in winter sports as part of the 2022 Olympics, and Ms. Gu seems to be playing a major role in this, with a huge fan base in China, particularly among young women. One of the faces of the Beijing Games, she also has prominent modelling contracts with the likes of Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret and Estée Lauder.

Ms. Gu is nowhere near the first athlete to represent a country other than where they were born, nor is she the only American competing for China at these Olympics. Indeed, the majority of players on China’s hockey teams, both men and women, are foreign born.

Jung Woo Lee, an expert on the global sport industry at the University of Edinburgh, said that “it is not uncommon nowadays to see the recruitment of a ‘hired gun’ to boost the performance of a national Olympic team,” especially when a non-Western country is holding the Winter Games.

“At Pyeongchang 2018, the Korean ice hockey team employed 11 naturalized players who are Canadian and American descents,” Mr. Lee said. “In that sense, the appearance of Eileen Gu in the Chinese Olympic team is not distinctively unusual as a flexible nationality of Olympic athletes has become common practice today.”

Gold medalist Ms. Gu celebrates during the medal ceremony for the women's freestyle skiing big air at the 2022 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 8.Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press

One such player this year is the son of a four-time U.S. Olympian, Chris Chelios. “Obviously I’m not Chinese but for the last three years I’ve been playing for the Chinese team, I’ve got the chance to live here and I love it,” Jake Chelios, who competes as Jieke Kailiaosi, told the Olympic news service this week.

“In three years you start to feel a certain closeness to the country and the fact that they’re letting me represent their country is a huge honour,” he said. “Honestly, I couldn’t be more excited to represent China.”

Canadian speed skater Ted-Jan Bloemen was born in and used to represent the Netherlands. Mr. Bloemen, who has credited his 2014 move to Canada with revitalizing his career, won gold and silver medals in Pyeongchang, beating Dutch skaters. But Mr. Bloemen has never faced the same opprobrium as Ms. Gu in the country of his birth.

China, too, is an exporter of athletes in some sports. At the Tokyo Olympics last year, five of the top 10 women table tennis players were born in China, but only two of them represented the People’s Republic, gold and silver medallists Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha.

Perhaps because China is so dominant in table tennis, there is little controversy over players switching nationalities, just as few Americans or Canadians complain about those hockey players who represent other countries when they fail to make their more competitive home teams. The Chinese men’s and women’s hockey teams at this Olympics, both majority North American, are ranked 32nd and 20th in the world, respectively.

Chinese nationalists have turned on players who switch flags in the past, however. When former youth national team basketball player Li Mingyang moved to Japan in 2013, a former coach called her “scum” and she was denounced in state media as “unpatriotic.” Similarly, Chinese actors and scientists who take foreign citizenship have also been attacked online.

Some in China have delighted over the irony of a similar controversy involving an American athlete. State-run tabloid Global Times said that calling Ms. Gu a traitor “contradicts what the U.S. advocates for freedom and respect for human rights.”

“It used to be that people wanted to be American, so why not accept that people want to be Chinese now?” the paper quoted one Ms. Gu fan, surnamed Zhang, as saying.

Not that every U.S. adoptee has been as appreciated as Ms. Gu. After Californian figure skater Zhu Yi, representing China, finished last in the women’s team event on Sunday, there was a backlash on the Chinese internet over why she was chosen rather than a native-born athlete.

Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based analyst and author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best, said that Ms. Gu has attracted more attention than other athletes who change nationality for a number of reasons.

“The first is, she’s very good, she’s potentially going to win as many as three gold medals,” he said. “And so obviously countries don’t like to lose someone who is that talented.”

But Mr. Dreyer said that the growing opprobrium against Ms. Gu in the U.S. has much more to do with the geopolitical context than the athlete herself. “The narrative in the U.S. on both sides of the political aisle is that China is bad,” he said. “And so the fact that someone is specifically willing to leave the U.S. to go to China pushes a lot of buttons.”

“I think if it was the U.S. and almost any other country, possibly with the exception of Russia, it would be a very different reaction,” Mr. Dreyer added.

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