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Zhou Yang won the gold medal for the women's 1500-metre short track skating competition at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Ivan Sekretarev)
Zhou Yang won the gold medal for the women's 1500-metre short track skating competition at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

Mark MacKinnon in China

A word of advice to China's athletes: Thank your nation Add to ...

The Olympic flame may be out in Vancouver and the speed-skating oval gone dark, but in China the controversy dubbed "Thank You-Gate" continues to flicker.

Eighteen-year-old Zhou Yang could do nothing wrong on the ice in Vancouver, dashing to gold medals in the women's 1,500 short-track speedskating competition and the 3,000-metre relay.

But she drew criticism from a senior Chinese sports official when she thanked her parents, her teammates and her coaches for helping her to gold, but omitted to praise her country and her government.

The backlash, however, turned against the scolding official, as ordinary Chinese rallied around Ms. Zhou, and the demands that she praise her country first soon became the target of derision and ridicule in the Chinese news media and Internet.

"It's my dream. After winning the gold I might change a lot, become more confident and help my parents have a better life," an out-of-breath Ms. Zhou told state-run Central China Television after setting an Olympic record while winning the 1,500-metre gold on Feb. 20.

The slip might have gone unnoticed amid the celebrations, but a senior Chinese sports official took umbrage at the fact Ms. Zhou didn't thank the national athletics system that had trained her ever since she was discovered at the age of eight in her hometown of Changchun, in northeast China.

"It's right to respect and thank your parents, but you also have to have the country in your heart. The country must come first. Don't just talk about your parents," said Yu Zaiqing, deputy director of China's General Administration of Sport.

Mr. Yu, who is also an International Olympic Committee vice-president, added that the country's sports system needed to pay more attention to the "moral education" of its athletes.

The remarks highlighted the strong tie between sports and politics in China, where children as young as 6 are often plucked out of their schools and placed in government-funded sports academies. Isolated from their families for years of gruelling training; their lone goal is to help China climb the medal charts at the next Olympic Games, thereby achieving its desired status as a sporting superpower.

Often, athletes have no choice as to which events they compete in. Ahead of the Vancouver Games, a dozen gymnasts and martial artists were sent to Whistler for a six-week camp to learn half-pipe snowboarding, an event Chinese officials decided there was an opportunity to win medals.

Ms. Zhou's family tried to shield her from the criticism, telling reporters that the speed skater was naive. "Zhou Yang is very introverted, her life is eating, sleeping and training," an aunt who gave her name as Wang told the Associated Press. "Of course her parents have sacrificed a lot, too."

Chinese media figures and on-line pundits were more blunt.

"The country is so confident, there is no need to hear her people complimenting her every day, otherwise, it's like a willful girlfriend who requires her boyfriend to say 'I love you' everyday," opined Bai Yansong, a famous television anchor on CCTV. "Zhou worked hard to be champion and loves her parents. This is love for the country. There is no need to say it out loud."

Online, where thousands of Chinese posted opinions in favour of Ms. Zhou and scornful of Mr. Yu, one cheeky person drew up a mock thank-you speech and suggested it could be used by all Chinese athletes in the future. It begins praising "my country, my leaders, the National Sports Administration, the local government and local sports department" and continues on to thank the athlete's doctor, chef, the "lady from the street committee who delivered coal to my family during the winter" as well as IOC chief Jacques Rogge.

Mr. Yu's entry on Baidu Baike, a Chinese site similar to Wikipedia, was temporarily changed to read "Yu Zaiqing, male ... no mother and no father, raised by the Communist Party."

Despite the uproar supporting her heartfelt initial comments, Ms. Zhou nonetheless corrected the record the first time she was given the chance, putting her gratitude in the proper order.

"I thank the country for providing us with excellent conditions, for giving us the excellent conditions for our Olympic campaign," she said in comments that appeared on several web sites this week. "And I thank everyone who supported us, I thank our coaches, I thank the staff, and I thank my mom and dad."

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