Transnational Olympians, cont’d

Four years ago I wrote a post about ‘transnational athletes’ in cross-country skiing. None were anywhere near medal-contenders.

But what happens when a transnational athlete wins Gold, as Eileen Gu just did? Add to that some international tension between the two countries that can ‘claim’ her in some way: the country she was born and grew up in; and the country she is representing as an athlete. What happens when the conflicting interests and desires of others get attached to the win?

Like a bystander on the periphery of a troubled relationship, the athlete might want to set some boundaries for one thing. As quoted in The Washington Post, it looks like Ms Gu is trying demarcate a line between her public performance and her private self:

I compete for myself, and I’m the one who did the work

Eileen Gu (via The Washington Post)

She might be a wee bit defensive or protective because:

  1. Perceptions of her motivation and purpose are at stake, yet those underlying motives may be complicated;
  2. No one wants to be a pawn of national pride in a game unrelated to the sport;
  3. There’s something transparently obsequious about the President of the IOC attending your performance accompanied by Peng Shuai.

The unfortunate truth is that the Olympics has always been an attractive stage for powerful people and authoritarian governments in particular. Competitors will find medal-winning performances co-opted because a win can carry a political message along for the ride. The athlete need not be a willing part of it, but all podium-winners are subject to having a message hitched to their performance whether they want it or not.

The path of the transnational athlete can be uneven and difficult. Congrats to Eileen Gu. Let her keep the meaning of the win for herself.

Eileen Gu with arm raised to wave at the crowd after winning Gold.
Olympic gold-medalist Eileen Gu