By Peter Stebbings

Californian-born teenage freestyle skier Eileen Gu won gold for China on her Olympic debut at the Beijing Winter Games on Tuesday as Japanese figure skating icon Yuzuru Hanyu made his eagerly awaited appearance.

Eileen Gu freestyle ski Olympics Beijing
China’s Eileen Gu after winning gold women’s big air freestyle during the Winter Olympic Games at the Big Air Shougang in Beijing on February 8, 2022. Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

Austria’s Matthias Mayer meanwhile went “all in” to successfully defend his super-G title, becoming the first men’s alpine skier to win gold medals in three consecutive Games.

American Ryan Cochran-Siegle took a surprise silver, just 0.04 seconds behind Mayer, with Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde — the big favourite coming into the race —  claiming bronze.

Ten gold medals were up for grabs on the fourth full day of competition in the Chinese capital, in sports including curling, luge, snowboarding and speed skating. 

But the day belonged to 18-year-old Gu, who justified all the pre-Games hype by nailing her third and final run in the Big Air to snatch gold from Tess Ledeux and force the French competitor into the silver medal position.

Gu — known in China as Gu Ailing — collapsed to her knees on the snow, put her gloved hands to her face and screamed in delight at the Big Air Shougang, where enormous industrial cooling towers provide a stunning backdrop.

“That was the best moment of my life. The happiest moment, day, whatever… of my life. I just cannot believe what just happened.”

The grade-A student and part-time model, who switched allegiance from the US to China in 2019, had been touted as one of the faces of the Beijing Olympics — and she did not disappoint despite the huge pressure on her young shoulders. 

Needing something special for gold, Gu nailed a left double cork 1620 — four and a half rotations in the air — before landing backwards.

“I have never done the ‘left 16 before’, I hadn’t prepared much for it apart from two days on the air bag,” Gu said.

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China (1) (Copy)
IOC President Thomas Bach during the Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo: IOC.

“My mum called me before my last jump and told me not to, but I was adamant I wanted to do the ‘left 16’.”

Gu, born to an American father and Chinese mother, has captivated China and could yet win more gold. She is also competing in the freeski halfpipe and slopestyle.

‘Crushing loneliness’

Also wildly popular in China is Hanyu, who launched his bid for a third Olympic title in a row in men’s figure skating.

The 27-year-old has promised to perform a quadruple axel — a move no skater has ever landed in competition — at the Games.

Despite his adoration at home and abroad, Hanyu remains something of an enigma, rarely granting interviews and having no social media presence.

In true Hanyu style, he only jetted into the Chinese capital on Sunday, his arrival whipping his Chinese fans into a social media frenzy.

But he will not have it all his own way and faces stiff competition from the American Nathan Chen.

Chen is known as the “Quad King” because he was the first skater to hit five different “quad jumps” — where the athlete rotates four times in the air — in competition.

These Olympics are taking place inside a Covid-secure “closed loop” bubble to thwart the virus.

The nearly 3,000 athletes and tens of thousands of support staff, volunteers and media are all cocooned within the bubble and cannot leave.

According to latest official figures, there were six positive cases in the bubble, five of them competitors.

There have been 393 cases since January 23.

Dozens of athletes are among them, including the figure skater Vincent Zhou of the US, whose shot at a medal in the singles competition was torpedoed when he returned a positive PCR test.

“It seems pretty unreal,” he said in an emotional video posted late Monday. 

“I’ve taken all the precautions I can. I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I’ve felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times.” 

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