Freestyle skiing-China pin hopes on Gu winning Olympic gold

3 minute read

Mar 13, 2021; Aspen, Colorado, USA; Ailing Eileen Gu of China competes in Freeski Slopestyle during the finals of the 2021 FIS Snowboard & Freeski World Championships. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

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Jan 26 (Reuters) - Whoever wins the freeski big air competition at the Beijing Games next month will make history as inaugural gold medallists with the discipline making its Olympic debut.

But for U.S.-born Chinese skier Eileen Gu the stakes are even higher. This will be her first chance to win an Olympic gold for China, a country she switched to represent in 2019.

Since then, Gu, born in San Francisco to an American father and a Chinese mother, has quickly gained popularity in China and become a darling for the local media and Chinese brands.

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In Beijing, advertisements starring Gu, who is also a highly sought-after model, are increasingly visible at bus stops and subway stations in the run up to the Olympics. The 18-year-old has amassed 1.35 million followers on China's Weibo platform.

She has partnered with over 20 brands, according to a Reuters review, including luxury names such as Tiffany & Co, and Louis Vuitton, plus a wide range of Chinese companies, from tech giant JD.com (9618.HK) to dairy producer China Mengniu Dairy.

Even though not many Chinese people know about the big air events, Gu’s sporting prowess, outgoing personality, fluency in Mandarin, and the fact that she was admitted to Stanford University, have turned her into a fan favorite.

Gu explained the decision to represent China, which she visited every summer when she grew up, as "the opportunity to help inspire millions of young people".

For China it was perfect timing as the country has for years been trying to cultivate world-class athletes in winter sports.

Gu's stellar winning records in 2021 have established her as one of the top contenders for Olympic gold on home soil, which should help the host country improve their record in freestyle skiing, where China grabbed three medals but no golds in 2018.

Gu won her first Big Air World Cup competition at Steamboat Springs in Colorado last year, becoming the first woman to land a right-side double cork 1440 in any free-skiing competition.

The teenager will be aiming for three medals - in big air, halfpipe and slopestyle - in Beijing.

Winning gold in big air is not guaranteed for the talented Gu however. Last weekend, 20-year-old French athlete Tess Ledeux performed the first double cork 1620 and won the championship at X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

"Chinese fans, let's not put too much pressure on Gu," said a viral video on China’s TikTok, Douyin, that has been viewed billions of times. A few hours later, Gu replied with crying faces: “Why don’t you have more faith in me?”

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Reporting by Krystal Hu in New York; Editing by Ken Ferris

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