Eileen Gu and Kamila Valieva became the teenage faces of Beijing 2022 under wildly contrasting circumstances
San Francisco native Gu is now a two-time gold-medalist, the Olympics’ youngest ever freestyle skiing champion, a Chinese national hero — and a budding author.
Born and raised in California, Gu chose to compete for China in 2019 — where her mother was born — and became the first freestyler skier in history to win three medals at a Games, winning gold in both the halfpipe and big air events.
“I’m writing a book,” Gu told reporters on Saturday. “I’ve been writing diaries for years because I knew that the way I grew up was different, interesting and special, I’d like to share it with everyone in the future.”
Hailed as the “pride of China” after winning her first gold, Gu has since won more medals than anyone else for the country at the Games.
But Gu doesn’t view her achievements at Beijing 2022 as purely a personal achievement — they also serve a greater representational purpose, according to the 18-year-old.
“Extreme sports, we all know, are heavily dominated by men and stereotypically it has not had the kind of representation and sporting equity that it should,” said Gu.
“So I think that as a young biracial woman, it is super important to be able to reach those milestones and to be able to push boundaries — not only my own boundaries but those of the sport and those of the record books because that’s what paves the past for the next generation of girls.”
Known as Gu Ailing in China, even before the Olympics the young star’s face was everywhere in the country — splashed across billboards, commercials, magazine covers and on state television in the build up to a home Games.
Given her success at Bejing 2022, her sky-high popularity unsurprisingly continued to rocket.
“If you see yourself in the sport, it totally changes your perception of what you can do in it,” Gu added.
“So my biggest goal is one, to have fun for myself, but also to break the boundaries of the boxes that people get put in.”
‘Very, very disturbed’
By contrast, Valieva leaves Beijing under the cloud of an ongoing drugs test scandal and a “traumatizing” final skating performance.
The 15-year-old Russian figure skater was touted to dazzle at the Winter Olympic and she did — making history as she became the first woman to land a quad at the Games.
However, a day after she helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) to gold in the team event the Russian teenager was suspended.
The suspension on February 8 came after it was discovered that Valieva had tested positive for banned heart drug trimetazidine in December 2021, though the result was only analyzed and reported to the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) in February.
Valieva was subsequently cleared to compete in the individual figure skating event, but a dominant start ended in tears after she fell multiple times during the deciding free skate routine to finish outside the podium places in fourth on Thursday.
After the 15-year-old left the rink in tears, former US Olympic figure skater Polina Edmunds described the experience as “very traumatizing” for the youngster.
Edmunds’ discomfort was echoed by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, who said he was “very, very disturbed” when watching Valieva’s performance on TV.
“How high the pressure on her must have been,” Bach told reporters during a media conference on Friday.
“This pressure is beyond my imagination, in particular for a girl of 15 years old. To see her struggling on the ice, seeing how she tries to compose herself again. How she tries to finish her program.
“In every movement in the body language … you could feel that this is an immense, immense mental stress and maybe she would’ve preferred just to leave the ice. And try to leave this story behind her.”
Bach also said that he did not have “much confidence in the closest entourage of Kamila,” remarking he noticed “how she was received … with what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling to see this.”
“Rather than giving her comfort. Rather than to try to help her … you could feel this chilling atmosphere. This distance. And if you were interpreting the body language of them, it got even worse because this was even some kind of dismissive gestures.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has pushed back at Bach’s comments, saying that while he respected his opinion, he did not “necessarily agree with him.”
“Thomas Bach is a very reputable person in sports, he is the head of the International Olympic Committee and, of course, we respect his point of view, but we don’t necessarily agree with him,” Peskov told reporters in a Friday briefing.
Peskov added that although Bach didn’t like seeing the “tough” tactics at play, “everybody knows that in the sport of great achievements, the toughness of a trainer is the key to victory,” adding, “We can see the athletes achieved these victories. And trainers. So let’s be proud of our victors.”
Lizzy Yee, Angus Watson, Selina Wang, David Close, Jacob Lev, Jeevan Ravindran, and Ben Morse contributed to this report