“You’re a loser. I’m a winner,” scoffed China’s greatest ever swimmer – Sun Yang – to a rival last summer when he’d refused to stand next to him on the medal podium at the world championships in South Korea (see WiC462).
But Sun’s claim to greatness was holed below the waterline last week, possibly fatally, when he was banned from competition for eight years for refusing to cooperate with blood-sample collectors two years ago.
The judgement came last Friday from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland. It followed an incident in which a security guard took instructions from Sun’s mother to shatter a vial of blood taken at an out-of-race test.
Sun has flirted with a bad boy reputation, spending a week in jail in 2013 after bashing a Porsche into a bus in his home city of Hangzhou (see WiC216). The following year he made headlines again by describing the national anthem of Japan as “ugly” after losing to a rival in a race.
His career has still been a stellar one, claiming three Olympic gold medals and 11 world championship titles. Yet for his critics the row with the testing team was another example of a readiness to break the rules, following an incident in 2014 when he was caught using a stimulant that he explained as medication for a heart problem. It also cemented suspicions that his achievements were tainted, although Sun’s legal team argued that he had every right to challenge the doping team because it had failed to follow proper procedures.
The ruling is a major embarrassment for FINA, swimming’s governing body, which had cleared Sun of wrongdoing after deciding that the drug-testing protocol had been breached. The World Anti-Doping Agency disagreed and launched an appeal at CAS, which decided that doping officials had behaved appropriately, so Sun was guilty of tampering with his samples.
Unsurprisingly Chinese netizens have reacted badly to the news and the press was largely supportive of their swimming star, seeing him as the wronged party. Sun’s local lawyer then dialled up the rhetoric in dramatic style. “It shows the scene where evil defeats justice and power replaces self-evident truths,” he fumed. “On this day, CAS listened to prejudice, turned a blind eye to rules and procedures, turned a blind eye to facts and evidence, and accepted all lies and false evidence.”
Sun’s critics have welcomed the decision, with Mack Horton, another of the swimmers who refused to stand on the podium with him, describing it as a “statement to the world” about doping.
There’s also been more speculation about Sun’s connections to the governing body, especially Cornel Marculescu, FINA’s executive director, who gave him a very public bear hug after he won his third Olympic gold four years ago.
“He is a very good friend of the Chinese swimming team,” Sun later explained. “So I was very happy that he watched me win the gold. I hope this friendship will last.”
To many in the sport, FINA’s perceived closeness to the Chinese star has been foolish. In the aftermath of the medal ceremony debacle in South Korea it pushed through new rules requiring medal winners to stand on the podium and banning them from making “political statements”. Previously it had given Sun a special award for his “Outstanding Contribution to Swimming Popularity in China”, with a spokesman acknowledging that it had been bestowed at “the request of the China Swimming Association”.
For the critics this was another sign that FINA has been too focused on exploiting the commercial potential of competitive swimming in China. According to court documents uncovered by the Associated Press, the swimming federation also supported arguments by Sun’s lawyers to have the appeal to CAS thrown out early last year.
The swimmer says he is still determined to clear his name, telling Xinhua that he would appeal within the next 30 days “to let more people know the truth”. But the grounds for appeal are limited to narrower procedural issues and the likelihood of success are not high. If so Sun won’t compete at the Tokyo Olympics and any prospects of a longer-term future in the pool will surely be sunk for the 28 year-old as well.
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