Sun Yang
(Image: AAP/Dave Hunt)

He may have won silver, but he stands shorter than everyone. Australian swimmer Mack Horton has once again snubbed Chinese rival Sun Yang, refusing to share a podium with the accused drug cheat at the opening night of the FINA World Championships in South Korea. 

The pair’s relationship goes back years and is peppered with feuds — some petty, and some substantial. Sun is accused of splashing water in Horton’s face ahead of a race at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Horton called Sun a drug cheat; Sun has accused Horton of disrespecting China. 

News and official reports paint a picture of Sun as a spoiled brat refusing to play fair. The controversy reached its climax late last year when Sun admitted to smashing a vial of his blood collected for drug-testing purposes.

Is there enough history to justify the drama? 

A secret ban and the dodgy doctor 

In 2014, FINA, the international federation of water sports, announced Sun had been banned from competing for three months after testing positive to doping. But it only made the announcement public months after the ban had been served, blaming a backlog of cases for keeping it quiet. 

Sun tested positive for trimetazidine, a metabolic agent which increases blood flow in the coronary arteries. It is primarily prescribed for angina pectoris (a form of chest pain usually caused by insufficient blood supply to the heart muscle), and can also be used for treatment of tinnitus and dizziness. It was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) earlier that year. 

While Sun said he used the drug for a heart condition and apologised, he was still able to compete at the Asian Games in South Korea in September, with the ban conveniently finishing just weeks prior. Sun was also stripped of his first-place finish in the 1500 freestyle at Chinese nationals.

His doctor Ba Zhen was suspended from practising for a year but ignored it, working at the Asian Games and helping to rehabilitate Sun. FINA said they extended the doctor’s ban, though effectively just restarted it. 

Smashing samples 

The controversy culminated in a bizarre attempt to test Sun in September 2018. In a leaked report, FINA called the mission “problematic, highly unusual and at times, confrontational”.

Independent drug testers, two females and a male assistant, arrived at Sun’s accommodation at the time agreed on only to find he wasn’t home. When he rolled up an hour later, Sun refused to let the male participate, saying the assistant wasn’t authorised. His mother, who was by his side the whole night, threatened to contact Chinese police. 

After drawing two vials of blood, Sun was asked to provide a urine sample. Given he had rejected the male assistant’s authority, there were no men to supervise. An officer suggested his mother supervise, which Sun refused. During this, Sun accused the assistant of taking photos and videos of him. 

Sun then sneaked away to the bathroom alone but was called back. When Sun’s doctor arrived, he concluded none of the officials had adequate paperwork. Sun crept outside with his security guard and, using a hammer, smashed one blood vial to smithereens. He asked the official to destroy the other one, which his mother later took away. 

Both parties complained to FINA, which only requested official versions of events two weeks later. FINA found a lack of legal definitions around the officials’ titles and documentation meant Sun was let off on a technicality. No other tests were ordered, though Sun still faces a lifetime ban as WADA appeals the ruling.

Bratty tantrums 

Being a brat doesn’t make you a cheat — but it doesn’t help cultivate a reputation of a clear, fair and just swimmer. 

In 2013, Sun was sent to jail in China for a week after crashing a car he drove without a license. He was also censured after fighting with his coach and missing practise for media appearances. 

In 2014, the same year as his doping ban, he made several TV ads for the Asian Games, mocking other swimmers while floating on an inflatable slice of watermelon (which we have to admit, is a little funny).  

In 2015, he was accused of attacking a Brazilian swimmer and behaving disrespectfully to other swimmers while warming up in a pool, pulling the woman’s foot and attempting to elbow other swimmers. 

In 2017, one of the officers involved in the dramatic blood-testing event said she had a run-in with Sun where the swimmer was “rude, abusive and uncooperative”. 

For all his wrongdoings, it seems the Chinese superstar has consistently got off lightly. With his doping ban shrouded in secrecy, the details of the vial-smashing kept under wraps, and with his constant run-ins with officials and swimmers, he may not be a cheat — but it doesn’t seem entirely wrong for Horton to snub him, either.  

Peter Fray

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