SHANGHAI, March 22 (Xinhua) -- The Shanghai Sports Bureau has denied claims they signed an agreement with a hospital to provide free life-long medical insurance to Olympic and world champions as well as their coaches.
Twenty-three athletes, including 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang, and four other outstanding coaches are listed in the program.
The municipal sports authority clarified on Wednesday that the insurance program includes both personal and commercial medical insurance supported by the Shanghai Sports Development Foundation.
The authority said it is not free or for life and that athletes and coaches will have to pay their medical bills which exceed what the insurance covers.
The bureau had come under fire after news first appeared in Huashang Daily, a newspaper based in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, on Sunday.
The report cited an insider saying that "[Shanghai-born] world champions will receive basic health care and all their medical fees will be exempted including those for athletic injuries, getting a cold or even going to the dentist."
It also said insurance would be for life.
The news was initially confirmed by Li Yuyi, head of the bureau, through a telephone interview, according to the report.
The deal prompted public outrage, with critics saying the champions have already been awarded with honors and prizes and that unsuccessful athletes like Zhang Shangwu should get guaranteed social security.
Zhang, a rising gymnast star won two gold medals at the 2001 Summer Universiade in Beijing. However, he ended up being a street performer.
"I hope the general public can also enjoy better medical resources," said retired professional basketball player Yao Ming, who is not on the list.
The bureau said the agreement with Huashan Hospital, known for its treatment of sports injuries, provides a "green channel" service for winners of Olympic events in Olympic Games, world championships and world cups.
Netizens have been angered at the fact that some sportsmen and women seem to be getting preferential treatment, with almost 32,000 people joining the debate since Huashang Daily's report.
"It's still a privilege considering ordinary people have to wait in long queues in front of a hospital," said a netizen with screen name "Husafen" on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.
"If we want to go to hospital, we have to sit up all night waiting for registration. Why can these athletes directly receive treatment from experienced medical workers anytime they want just because they are Olympic winners?" said user "Zaibianji" on weibo.com.
Netizens suggested that the government should seek opinions before carrying out any policies.
Experts said the online discussions indicated the rising awareness of fairness among Chinese society.
"Seeking fairness is key in medical insurance reform being successful," said Zhang Youde, a professor with Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
"If the incident happened 20 years ago, maybe no one would cast any doubt about it," said Gu Jun, a professor in sociology with Shanghai University. "But now, awareness of fairness and public supervision have dramatically increased."