China was once the great exporter of Olympic talent. The Beijing Winter Games show that China is becoming an importer of talent.

China is making headlines for fielding an unprecedented number of naturalized athletes in the Beijing Winter Games.

The most prominent athlete in this group is an 18-year-old American-born freestyle skier. Eileen Gu. Born to an American father and a Chinese mother, Gu represented the United States for most of her life until she chosen in 2019 compete for China even if it keep on livingin the USA.

There’s also a 19-year-old American-born figure skater Zhu Yi, who renounced his American citizenship to compete for China at the Beijing Olympics. She joined the Chinese 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” to China, said Susan Brownell, a professor and sports anthropologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who specializes in China and the Olympic Games. She told Insider it boils down to the fact that, quite simply, China “would really rather be a lot more competitive on the world stage.”

An exporter of table tennis talent

Nowhere is China’s presence as a major exporter of Olympic talent more clear than in table tennis.

For decades, Chinese-born athletes have been hot on the international table tennis circuit. At the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, at least 44 table tennis players of Chinese descent competed for 22 countries, including China, according to The New York Times. Only six of them played for China.

Many table tennis athletes exported by China never had a chance to represent the country or were past their prime, Brownell said.

“If I had stayed in China, I would probably never have had the chance to compete in the Olympic Games because there is too much talent in sport in China,” the 38-year-old said. Han Yin 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

Prior to the Beijing Winter Games, only a handful of naturalized athletes had represented China at the national level, Brownell told Insider. Among these athletes are equestrian sports Alex Hua Tianwho renounced his British nationality to compete for China at the 2008 Summer Games, and a track athlete Nina Schultzwho renounced his Canadian citizenship to represent China at the Tokyo Olympics last year.

It’s a different story in Beijing this time around. Today, 15 of 25 players on the men’s ice hockey team and 12 of 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, son of NHL Hall of Famer Chris Chelios are also not known to have Chinese ancestry, according to the outlet.

A competitor must be a national of the country he represents, in accordance with the Olympic charter. As China does not recognize dual citizenship, the question of whether US-born athletes, such as freestyle skier Gu and members of hockey teams, have renounced their US or Canadian citizenship has been the subject of debate. scrutiny.

Gu dodged the questions on his citizenship. Chelios said he and several of his teammates still have their US passports, reported the WSJ. When asked if he acquired a Chinese passport,he said: You have to talk to the Chinese staff about it.

The Chinese Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Mark Dreyer is the founder of the Beijing-based media China Sports Insider (no relation to this publication) and the author from a book published 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 why 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 from another country it’s because they can’t form their own national team,” Dreyer said.

This is especially the case with sports like hockey, which have top-tier professional leagues in places like the United States. China, on the other hand, was unable to put together a home team good enough to play in the Winter Games without being an “utter disaster”, Dreyer said. (The men’s team lost 8-0 to USA in his first game at the Olympics last Thursday.)

Take the example of the Chinese hockey team at the Beijing Olympics: some of the players born in the United States and Canada, like Chelios, had NHL experience, but most were career minor leaguers. , according to Los Angeles Times.

“These are players who don’t play for Canada or the United States because they weren’t good enough, but they were good enough to represent China,” Dreyer said.

China may continue to import sports talent

Of course, recruiting foreign-born athletes is not unique to China. American-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 over the past few years, Brownell told Insider.

“It’s kind of a national rivalry, and different nations are doing it. If China wants to follow, they think they have to too,” Brownell said.

The intense spotlight 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 wins: Gu, competing for China, beat the Americans. “That’s usually not the case with these athletes,” Brownell added.

Experts Insider spoke to said China may continue to recruit foreign sports talent to fill gaps in its sports scene after the Beijing Winter Games, pointing to sports like basketball, soccer and athletics as possible recruitment fields. Brownell and Dreyer also said Chinese sports authorities would likely seek out athletes of Chinese ancestry first.

“I think emotionally it’s easier to sell internally in China to have what they call ‘legacy players,'” Dreyer said.

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