BEIJING • Chinese state-run media yesterday blasted Australian swimmer Mack Horton as immoral and his nation as a former "offshore prison", after he referred to swim star Sun Yang as a drug cheat.
Horton dethroned Sun as the 400m freestyle Olympic champion in Rio on Saturday, prompting the Chinese athlete to break down in tears during his media conference.
Before the race, Horton was asked how he felt about doping violators Sun and South Korean Park Tae Hwan competing at the Games, and he responded: "I don't have time or respect for drug cheats."
Sun is popular in China, despite his repeated brushes with controversy - which include serving a drug suspension in secret in 2014.
Horton's comments lit up nationalistic sentiments online and in print.
The Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist party, yesterday blasted Horton's "cynical smugness".
It added that Australia should feel embarrassed by the swimmer's "disgraceful" victory.
"In many serious essays written by Westerners, Australia is mentioned as a country at the fringes of civilisation," it went on, referencing its "early history as Britain's offshore prison".
"This suggests that no one should be surprised at uncivilised acts emanating from the country."
Angry Chinese journalists confronted Horton in Rio to ask why he had used such terminology, and the Australian did not mince his words.
"I used the word 'drugs cheat' because he tested positive," replied Horton, setting the tone for an explosive press conference and prompting Chinese officials to demand an apology.
Thousands of social media users also demanded he say sorry, posting with the hashtag #SunYangDontCry on China's Twitter-like Weibo service after footage of Sun sobbing uncontrollably in the media zone went viral.
"For the peaceful co-existence of China and Australia, I hereby wish Horton to win swimming titles at the next Paralympics," one user wrote, blasting the Australian as "mentally handicapped".