- China is joining the global race for sports talent.
- It has fielded an unprecedented number of naturalized athletes at the Beijing Winter Games.
- Before this, China was better known as an exporter of athletes, particularly in table tennis.
China is making headlines for fielding an unprecedented number of naturalized athletes at the Beijing Winter Games.
The most high-profile athlete in this grouping 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 she chose in 2019 to compete for China — even though she continues to live in the US.
There's also 19-year-old US-born figure skater Zhu Yi, who gave up her US citizenship to compete for China in the Beijing Olympics. She joined China's team as part of a state program to recruit "top 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 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 it is in the field of 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 Chinese-born table tennis players competed for 22 countries including China, according to The New York Times. Just six of them were playing for China.
Many of the table tennis athletes China exporte never stood a chance representing the country, or were past their prime, Brownell said.
"If I'd stayed in China, I might probably never have the chance to compete at the Olympics because there are way too many talents in the sport in China," 38-year-old women's player Han Ying told China Daily in July. She moved overseas 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 ever represented China at the national level, Brownell told Insider. Among those athletes are equestrian Alex Hua Tian, who gave up his 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 last year at the Tokyo Olympics.
It's a different story in Beijing this time around. Now, 15 out of 25 players on the men's ice hockey team and 12 out of 23 in 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 — aren't known to have any Chinese ancestry either, per the media outlet.
A competitor must be a national of the country he or she is representing, per the Olympic charter. As China doesn't recognize dual citizenship, the question of whether US-born athletes, like freestyle skier Gu and those on the hockey teams, have renounced their American or Canadian citizenships has come under intense scrutiny.
Gu has avoided questions about her citizenship. Chelios has said he and several of his teammates still have their American passports, the WSJ reported. When asked if he has acquired a Chinese passport, he said: "You gotta talk to the Chinese staff about that one."
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 with sports like hockey, which have high-level professional leagues in places like the US. China, on the other hand, hasn't been able to build up a homegrown team that's good enough to play at the Winter Games without being an "absolute disaster," said Dreyer. (The men's team lost 8-0 to the US at its first game at the Olympics last Thursday.)
Consider China's hockey team at the Beijing Olympics: Some of the US and Canadian-born players, such as Chelios, had NHL experience, but most were career minor-leaguers, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"Those are players who are not playing for Canada or the US because they weren't good enough, but they were good enough to represent China," said Dreyer.
China could continue importing sports talent
Of course, the recruiting of foreign-born athletes is not a China-specific practice. US-born athletes are currently representing 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 the last few years, Brownell told Insider.
"It's kind of the national rivalry, and different nations are doing it. If China wants to keep up, they think they need to do it too," said Brownell.
The intense spotlight on US-born athletes competing for China this time around is likely due to the heightened geopolitical tensions between the the two countries, said Brownell. There's also the matter of who's winning: Gu, competing for China, beat the Americans. "That's usually not the case with these athletes," Brownell added.
The experts Insider spoke to said China might keep recruiting foreign sports talent to fill gaps in its sporting scene after the Beijing Winter Games, pointing to sports like basketball, soccer, and track and field as possible 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 an easier sell internally in China to have what they call 'heritage players,'" said Dreyer.