- China is joining the global race for sports talent.
- It has fielded an unprecedented number of naturalized athletes at the Beijing Winter Games.
China is making headlines for fielding an unprecedented number of naturalized athletes at the Beijing Winter Games.
The highest-profile athlete in this group is 18-year-old US-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu. Born to an American father and a Chinese mother, Gu represented the US for most of her life until, in 2019, she decided to compete for China, although she continues to live in the US.
There is also 19-year-old American figure skater Zhu Yi, who gave up her US citizenship to compete for China at the Beijing Olympics. She joined the China team as part of a state program to recruit “the best Chinese athletes from abroad,” Chinese state media reported in 2018.
This practice of importing Olympic talent is “really new” for China, said Susan Brownell, a professor and sports anthropologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who specializes in China and the Olympics. She told Insider that it comes down to the fact that, simply put, China “would really prefer to be much more competitive on the world stage.”
An exporter of table-tennis talent
Nowhere is China’s presence as the great exporter of Olympic talent as clear as in the field of table tennis.
For decades, Chinese-born athletes have excelled on the international table tennis circuit. At the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, at least 44 Chinese-born table tennis players competed for 22 countries, including China, according to The New York Times. Only six of them played for China.
Many of China’s exported table tennis athletes never got a chance to represent the country, or were past their prime, Brownell said.
“If I had stayed in China, I would probably never get a chance to compete in the Olympics because there are too many talents in the sport in China,” 38-year-old Han Ying told China Daily in July. She moved abroad in 2002 and started playing for Germany after acquiring citizenship in 2010.
China is trying something new
Before the Beijing Winter Games, only a handful of naturalized athletes had represented China at the national level, Brownell told Insider. Among those athletes are equestrian Alex Hua Tian, who gave up her British citizenship to compete for China at the 2008 Summer Games, and track athlete Nina Schultz, who gave up her Canadian citizenship to represent China on last year at the Tokyo Olympics.
It’s a different story in Beijing this time. Now, 15 of the 25 players on the men’s ice hockey team and 12 of the 23 on the women’s team are naturalized athletes, according to Reuters. Unlike Gu, Zhu, Hua and Schultz, some, like American hockey player Jake Chelios, the son of NHL Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, also have no Chinese ancestry, according to the news outlet.
A competitor must be a national of the country he represents, according to the Olympic charter. As China does not recognize dual citizenship, the question of whether American-born athletes, such as freestyle skier Gu and those on hockey teams, have relinquished their US or Canadian citizenship has come under intense scrutiny.
Gu has avoided questions about his citizenship. Chelios has said that he and several of his teammates still have their US passports, the WSJ reported. When asked if he had acquired a Chinese passport, he said, “You have to talk to the Chinese staff about that.”
The Chinese Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
A chance to compete
Mark Dreyer is the founder of Beijing-based media outlet China Sports Insider (no relation to this publication) and the author of a book released earlier this year, “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.” He told Insider there’s a simple reason some athletes end up representing a country at the Olympics other than the one they were born or raised in.
“Usually when athletes are recruited to another country, it’s because they can’t make their own national team,” Dreyer said.
That’s especially the case for sports like hockey, which have top-tier professional leagues in places like the United States. China, on the other hand, has not been able to build a local team that is good enough to play in the Winter Games without being an “absolute disaster,” Dreyer said. (The men’s team lost 8-0 to the US in their first match at the Olympics last Thursday.)
Consider China’s hockey team at the Beijing Olympics: Some of the US- and Canadian-born players, like Chelios, had NHL experience, but most were career minor leaguers, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Those are players who aren’t playing for Canada or the United States because they weren’t good enough, but they were good enough to represent China,” Dreyer said.
China could continue importing sports talent
Of course, the recruitment of foreign-born athletes is not a practice specific to China. The US-born athletes currently represent Thailand, Ecuador and the Philippines at the Beijing Olympics. And countries like Qatar and Bahrain have also recruited foreign-born talent to boost their chances of winning medals at international games in recent years, Brownell told Insider.
“It’s kind of a national rivalry, and different nations are doing it. If China wants to keep up, they think they should too,” Brownell said.
The intense attention on US-born athletes competing for China this time around is likely due to heightened geopolitical tensions between the two countries, Brownell said. There is also the question of who is winning: Gu, running for China, beat the Americans. “That’s not often the case with these athletes,” Brownell added.
Experts Insider spoke with said China may continue to recruit foreign sports talent to fill gaps in its sports scene after the Beijing Winter Games, pointing to sports such as basketball, soccer and track and field as potential recruitment areas. Both Brownell and Dreyer also said Chinese sports authorities are likely to seek out athletes with Chinese ancestry first.
“I think emotionally it’s easier to sell internally in China to have what they call ‘heritage players,'” Dreyer said.