Podium Protests in World Aquatics Championships Yield No Winners but Unveil Deep Problems

Sun Yang after winning 200-free at the 2016 Santa Clara Arena Grand Prix. (Photo credit: JD Lasica/Cruiseable)

Gwangju 2019 World Aquatics Championships came to close two days ago with the 19-year-old Kristof Milak breaking the world record in 200m butterfly set by Michael Phelps a decade ago with almost two seconds off and eight other old marks broken. However, people’s attentions was still on the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, but not because of his dominant performance in lanes, rather because two other swimmers Mack Horton and Duncan Scott refused to share the podium with him after the races were over.

When Horton refused to stand on the podium one week ago, many people thought it was just a continuation of a personal dispute between the two top athletes. Mack Horton is not a new name to Chinese people, he once called Sun Yang a drug cheat after outpacing him in the 400m freestyle race in the Rio Olympic Game. His name soon started to be used to describe people whose words are full of baseless doubts on Chinese social media. After Horton snubbed Sun Yang again this year, his name assumed the meaning of a “sore loser”.

However, the discussions went beyond the personal tensions between Sun and Horton. Instead, it was a debate about the anti-doping ecosystem of swimming competitions. More and more athletes started to get involved into the topic. To the disappointment of many Chinese, numerous swimmers chose to stand with Horton and Scott, including Olympic Medalists Lily King, James Guy, and Adam Peaty, since they themselves doubted Sun Yang’s qualification for the competition this year.

SEE ALSO: Mack Horton: ‘My Position Remains Firm on Fair Competitions’

In 2018, Sun Yang gained notoriety by destroying his blood samples during an out-of-competition testing. Based on a testimony from his team, mother and himself, Sun believed two of three blood collection agents failed to provide proper validation of their certification to carry out the tests and one of them was secretly filming him without permission. The International Doping Tests and Management (IDTM) insisted that everything went according to rules. Earlier this year, International Swimming Federation (FINA), completed a 59-page report that included testimonies from both IDTM and the athlete’s side, and came to a conclusion that the swimmer did not commit a doping violation. However, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is seeking tougher punishment on Sun and decided to move the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The CAS hearing is scheduled for September, two months after the World Championship, and FINA gave Sun the green light to compete in the year’s biggest swimming event.

This is not the first time that Sun’s name has been connected to doping violation. His first and currently only accepted doping violation came in 2014, he served a 3-month doping suspension for a positive test for the use of Trimetazidine in May, just four moths after the drug was added to the prohibited list. Sun claimed that he was unaware the drug had been added to the list and that the drug had been prescribed to him for his heart condition for over six years, the same condition that forced him to quit the 1500m freestyle race in the 2015 World Championships few months later.

Sun’s explanation received many people’s understanding since Trimetazidine was only prohibited in-competition, and could still be used by swimmers outside of competitions as long as it was out of their system by the time they went into an official race, and Sun’s heart condition was not a secret. What made Sun a target was that the Chinese swimming federation did not announce Sun’s suspension until November 2014, after the suspension had already been served. Many swimmers naturally suspected that China was trying to hide more than just a one time offence.

The doping violation turned Sun’s life upside down. Before 2014, he was both a hero and a devil. On the one hand, he was the first Olympic gold medalist among Chinese male swimmers and his outgoing personality and above average looks helped him gain many fans. On the other hand, his name was always surrounded by controversies. In 2013, he was accused of driving without a license. The same year, he parted ways with his indebted coach. He was also rumored to have an illegitimate child. After the suspension, the scandals vanished, Sun put all his attentions on winning more titles. As his coach said, “The positive testing result was a big blow for his life. He thought all his efforts and honors were becoming useless and even considered retiring. After that, he became more hardworking because he wanted to prove himself through his performance.”

However, his performance was not convincing to his fellows. Athletes like Mack Horton are still wondering why he was able to attend the competition despite his case still being processed at CAS. Although, none of them target China as a whole. Xu Jiayu, this year’s 100m backstroke gold medalist, had a pretty friendly exchange with Mitchel Larkin on the podium, while Larkin was also supporting Horton’s protest against Sun. Meanwhile, Lily King’s anger was also not aimed at Sun exclusively, but also at Shayna Jack, an Australian athlete who failed her doping test. All their criticism is ultimately targeting the fact that FINA has shown no eagerness to aggressively tackle the doping issue. Swimming has more doping scandals than pretty much any other sport, and Sun’s inconclusive blood-sample case just happened to coincide with the growing annoyance of athletes with FINA’s inaction. As Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history, said, “Nothing has changed from 40 years ago. That’s where I really, really struggle. FINA can do something about this, but they refuse to do something about this. That’s upsetting.”

Michael Phelps (Photo: cn.nytimes.com)

Sun Yang also claimed he was fighting for fairness to all players, “If an unauthorized person took away my blood sample and the sample was polluted for some reason, I wouldn’t even be able to prove my innocence. I am also working for a fair and credible test process for all players.” Obviously, Sun also spoke against the unorganized anti-doping system, although the way he dealt with his test was extremely contentious.

There are no winners in this recent controversy. The credibility of IDTM, FINA and WADA keeps being doubted and Sun is still in the spotlight swallowing groundless accusations from his fellows and swimming fans and waiting for his hearing. The only way to end this farce is to reach a convincing conclusion during the September’s hearing, and to improve the current anti-doping system to make sure all athletes are competing fairly. As to how we should treat Sun Yang, at this point there is no evidence that he was cheating, so accusing him might also be unjust, we can only wait and see.