The most-remembered protest in Olympic history came in 1968 in Mexico, when African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during the US national anthem.
The protests at the swimming world championships in South Korea late last month were different, with two competitors refusing to climb up onto the podium alongside Chinese swimmer Sun Yang.
First Mack Horton of Australia refused to share the podium with Sun after losing to him in the 400 metre freestyle. British swimmer Duncan Scott did something similar when Sun retained his 200 metre title, also declining to shake his hand.
It was all too much for Sun who responded by gesticulating at Scott and shouting: “You’re a loser, I win!”
China’s most successful swimmer has a history of bad blood with Horton, bursting into tears when the Australian called him a “drug cheat” at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. The Chinese team was furious but Horton refused to apologise and his bosses backed his stance.
The row followed revelations that Sun had been given a secret three-month ban for taking an illegal stimulant by the Chinese Swimming Association in 2014. When the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found out it admonished the Chinese for failing to report the case, but it accepted Sun’s explanation: he had failed the test because of medication for heart palpitations.
The allegations began again last month – days before the swimming world championships opened – as the Australian newspaper the Sunday Telegraph published a report about a drug test on Sun by WADA.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, three people turned up to test Sun at his home late last year. Only one had proper accreditation, so Sun called his lawyer, who advised him not to sign any paperwork. Later his entourage smashed the blood samples with a hammer.
An independent panel of swimming’s international federation FINA ruled that Sun couldn’t be penalised as the testing team wasn’t properly accredited. But this time WADA wasn’t happy and it has appealed against the findings to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Geneva. A hearing is scheduled for September.
Sun has a bit of a reputation as a rule-breaker domestically (see WiC182 and WiC216) and his rivals have argued that he shouldn’t have competed in South Korea with the doping case unresolved. There has been wider criticism that FINA is too beholden to the views of his national team because China is key to the sport’s commercial success.
Sun takes a different view, arguing that his refusal to provide a sample was a service to the sport. “What I did is to defend the rights of all athletes, because if someone is not qualified to take blood, who knows what can happen?” he told Chinese journalists last week.
China’s national swimmers have been subject to doping speculation in the past, particularly the women’s team, which improved from barely competing in the late 1980s to winning 12 gold medals at the world championships in 1994. In the same year 11 of the women tested positive for a banned steroid at the Asian Games. Over the next three Olympiads there were no positive tests among the Chinese women, but only two gold medals were won.
Sun has been a colossus of the sport over a much longer period, winning 14 gold medals at Olympic and world championship meets. His coach – an Australian – defended him stoutly last week, saying that doping was no longer a problem in Chinese swimming. “It’s absolutely critical for the athletes, the associa-tion, for the whole sake of China’s respect on a world stage that they’re well and truly distanced from that past,” he told AP, insisting that Sun was one of the most tested athletes in swimming.
Citing WADA’s figures, Phoenix TV said China has received more drug tests then all other nations in recent years. Chinese athletes took more than 13,000 doping tests in 2014 and 48 cases, or 0.36%, were tested positive. In comparison, the broadcaster noted, Australians were tested 4,530 times in the same year and the ratio of positive doping stood at 0.88%.
Qianjiang Evening News – from Sun’s hometown of Hangzhou – turned the focus more on Horton, saying that he had humiliated himself. “In contrast, Sun Yang appeared to be more frank, winning the game and winning with grace and personal character,” it believed.
Netizens were furious as well, seeing the row as a matter of national honour. Sun took the same line, telling media that what made him angriest was the besmirching of his homeland. “You can choose not to respect me, but you must respect China,” he demanded.
That said, many of the country’s newspapers waded in to trash the Aussies when Horton first clashed with Sun three years ago over the allegations. “It’s not a big deal to us,” the Global Times initially responded, before going on to display its true ire when it described Australia as “a country at the fringes of civilisation” with a history as “Britain’s offshore prison”.
This week China’s press took grimmer satisfaction from news that Shayna Jack, one of Horton’s teammates, had tested positive for a banned substance shortly before the world championships. Final confirmation of the results last weekend was deeply embarrassing for Australian officials in the wake of the row over Sun, and intensely awkward for Horton, who was asked repeatedly to comment on Jack’s case.
The revelations sparked an avalanche of comment from Chinese netizens, much of it laced with contempt for the Australian team. “What a bunch of hypocrites! Typical double standards from Westerners,” fumed one. “Australians are lying to themselves,” claimed another.
Sun is now waiting for the CAS hearing next month. He says he wants it heard in public so that he can clear his name. But if WADA wins its case and he is found guilty of a doping violation he could still face a lifetime ban.
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