North American-born Chinese Olympians get a chance to shine

BEIJING (AP) — The son of NHL great Chris Chelios is playing for China at the Olympics, but you won’t see Chelios’ name on the roster.

Like other foreign-born athletes representing China at the Beijing Games, Jake Chelios will perform under a Chinese name. In any official Olympic context, he will be Jieke Kailiaosi.

“My new name? I love it. It’s cool. It’s part of the experience. Since I’ve been here, everything is a bit new for me, and that’s what’s exciting about playing abroad,” Chelios said during training on Saturday. “I know a couple of words (in Chinese), but I took six years of Spanish in high school. I couldn’t even learn that, so I didn’t even try.

China is eager to popularize winter sports and to be represented in the Olympic program, even in events where it has not had much success in the past. In hockey, freestyle skiing and figure skating, China has athletes who were born and raised in North America.

Naturalized athletes come from a variety of backgrounds. Unlike Chelios, many of them have Chinese heritage and see the 2022 Games as a way to strengthen a bond with their family origins. The most famous is Eileen Gu, on the Olympic program as Gu Ailing, a freestyle skier who said she chose to represent China because she thought she could have a bigger impact as a role model. .

She made her point on Monday, landing a spectacular 1620-degree jump to win gold in the big air event.

Vancouver-born goaltender Kimberly Newell is another one in the spotlight in China after making five saves in a shootout as China won 2-1 over Japan in women’s hockey on Sunday. She plays the role of Zhou Jiaying and explained that Zhou is her mother’s surname and Jiaying is the Chinese name her mother gave her when she was a child.

At the start of a conversation between Newell and English-speaking reporters on Sunday, a team staff member accompanying the keeper said she would only speak Chinese.

“I just want to do my best throughout the tournament. Step by step, I’m doing my best,” she said, according to the staff member’s translation.

Newell played college hockey for Princeton and also played for the Canadian national under-18 team, making 39 saves in the gold medal game to beat the United States at the world under-18 championship years in 2013.

After two years out of hockey, Newell was drafted in 2018 to play for the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, a Chinese-owned club that first played in Canada, then in the Russian league, and became the base of the new Chinese national team. Beating Japan was a breakthrough for Chinese hockey, which last played in an Olympic tournament in 2010.

Other players have taken different paths to Chinese teams.

Former NHL goaltender Jeremy Smith – whose new name Jieruimi Shimisi is written on his mask in Chinese characters – saw a move to China as a way to rejuvenate his career after 10 games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2017 and time with many farm crews.

In 2019, he signed with Kunlun Red Star, a Chinese-owned club playing in the Russia-based Continental Hockey League, as one of several North Americans who gave the team an experienced core and mentored Chinese players. Last year, he was asked if he would also consider playing for the Chinese national team.

“If someone were in my shoes, they would understand how sometimes the pieces come together, and it’s a privilege to play hockey for a profession,” Smith said.

His first match for China will be on Thursday against the United States, which he represented at the 2008 world junior championships.

“It’s pretty unique,” Smith said. “Not many people can say they played for and against the United States.”

Many countries in a multitude of sports have fielded naturalized athletes for decades. Russia won three Olympic gold medals with South Korean speed skater Viktor Ahn in 2014, and 2018 host country South Korea has naturalized athletes from the United States, Canada, Russia and from Germany.

China took longer to embrace the idea, in part because of its strict citizenship rules. Chinese ethnic heritage or long-term residency is usually required, and new citizens must renounce other nationalities. It is not clear if exemptions have been made for these Olympians, or if some still hold other passports.

Competing as a naturalized athlete for a country of 1.4 billion people can be overwhelming.

Figure skater Zhu Yi, who was born in California to Chinese parents and won a U.S. national novice title as Beverly Zhu, has come under fire on Chinese social media after repeatedly crashing during the team event and finished her skate on Monday in tears. Some in the United States expressed their joy at his downfall because of his change of sporting allegiance.

“I’m relieved because (there is) a lot of pressure and people are expecting a lot,” Zhu said on Monday. “Honestly, I trained very hard and I think the main thing is to cope mentally.”

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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