Filipinos hail skating hero

MANILA - The Philippine ice skater who reached the finals of the Winter Olympics was hailed as a hero on Friday even as a senior sports official denied accusations that the government failed to support him.

Michael Martinez, 17, the lone representative of the tropical country in Sochi, made history after he qualified on Thursday from the men's figure skating short programme for the free skate final on Friday, despite numerous disadvantages.

Among the challenges faced by the skater was the absence of snow in the Philippines which forced Martinez to initially learn his art in a shopping mall skating rink.

Local news reports suggested that his family had struggled to pay for his training and that the government did not provide any support to him.

"We are very happy with his performance. For a guy who learned how to skate in the Philippines, to make it to the finals. ... It is really amazing," said Ricardo Garcia, chairman of the Philippine Sports Commission.

"This is a very big issue for us. We have an athlete who is an Olympian who made it to the final rounds."

Garcia also stressed that Martinez had received adequate financial support from the government and private donors.

Some of the country's wealthiest tycoons were sponsoring Martinez and the national skating association never asked for additional funds for him, Garcia said.

Social media were agog over Martinez's success in a sport so alien to his country.

Popular director Jose Javier Reyes wrote in a message to Martinez on Twitter: "The medal is immaterial. In the hearts of your countrymen, your feat is more than an Olympic Gold. You inspire."

"Was teary eyed when I saw #MichaelChristianMartinez wave his jacket with PHILIPPINES printed on it. He put his heart & soul in his performance," another tweet read.

Despite the steep odds facing the young man, Garcia said "He might pull off something that will make him win. He has the capabilities. He has the attitude of a winner."

The Philippine Olympic Committee asked the government for $7,200 to cover some of Martinez's additional expenses but this money was released in December, Garcia added.

If Martinez does not win a medal in the 2014 Games, he will use the experience "as a stepping stone to gain more experience for the next Olympics", Garcia said.

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