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Family kept grandparents' deaths secret from Chinese diver until she won gold medal

Wu Minxia and Zi He (AFP)

Wu Minxia and Zi He (AFP)


LONDON – Chinese diver Wu Minxia's celebrations at winning a third Olympic gold medal were cut short after her family revealed the details of a devastating secret they had kept for several years.

Wu's parents decided to withhold news of both the death of her grandparents and of her mother's long battle with breast cancer until after she won the 3-meter springboard in London so as to not interfere with her diving career.

"It was essential to tell this white lie," said her father Wu Yuming.

[ Related: China's 16-year-old swimming phenom wins second gold amid controversy ]

The story of Wu's family secret has generated huge discussion in China, where the pursuit of success has been chased by the government-backed sports national sports program with unshakeable zeal over the past two decades.

Now there seems to be a backlash against the win-at-all-costs mentality after the revelations about Wu followed fierce criticism from a national newspaper when a 17-year-old weightlifter failed to medal.

In China, athletes are often taken away from their families at a young age and placed in specialist training schools where they practice for hours every day. Wu began training daily at a diving camp at the age of 6. By the time she was 16, she had left home to be installed in a government aquatic sports institute.

She has become one of her sport's all-time greats, but her father says the success has come at a high price to her personal life.

"We accepted a long time ago that she doesn't belong entirely to us," Wu Yuming told the Shanghai Morning Post. "I don't even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness."

[ Related: Wieber finds redemption as Team USA women win gymnastics gold ]

Wu's mother defended the decision to keep her situation private and admitted she only broached the subject of her breast cancer at this point because she is now in remission. Both of Wu's grandparents died more than a year ago, but the diver knew nothing of their passing until this week.

The Chinese government's attitude towards the performances of its athletes is now coming under greater scrutiny than ever before. Messages of congratulations from the government to athletes through the state news agency have been sent only to gold medalists, not those winning silver or bronze.

"It is too narrow to look at the Olympics purely through the prism of medals," said an editorial in the China Business News publication. "It is also about sweat, tears, hardships … peace, freedom, and justice."

However, while China continues to dominate the medal table it is unlikely there will be any significant shift in a system that is regarded with pride within Chinese political circles.

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