China's communist government has officially named National Basketball Association center Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets a "model worker," an honor usually given to less well-known people.

The Xinhua News Agency reports that Yao was chosen Wednesday along with Olympic hurdles gold medalist Liu Xiang. It was the first time that a multi-millionaire professional athlete has been given the honor.

Some Chinese criticized Yao's nomination because they say the award was meant to honor ordinary workers who devote themselves to Marxist principles.

The 2.26-meter-tall Yao is a three-time NBA All-Star player with Houston. He is averaging more than 18 points and eight rebounds per game. Forbes magazine reports that in addition to his $4.5 million salary, Yao earned nearly $10 million in endorsements in 2004.

Liu won the gold medal in the men's 110-meter hurdles at last year's Olympics in Athens. He was the first Chinese athlete to win the event and set an Olympic record of 12.91 seconds in the race.

Some information for this report provided by AFP and AP.