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Sun the king of drama as Chinese star swims through endless controversy

by ZwemZa on February 2nd, 2019

Golden moment: Mack Horton’s clash with Sun Yang at the Rio Games was unforgettable Olympic theatre.Credit:EPA

Aside from Mack Horton’s infamous “drug cheat” taunt, the most memorable comment about Sun Yang from the Rio Olympics came from Frenchman Camille Lacourt, not any of Horton’s equally as disapproving Australian squad mates.

“Sun Yang, he pisses purple,” the wonderfully unfiltered backstroker told a French radio station. “When I see the 200m [freestyle] podium, I want to be sick.”

It was a brutal judgement passed at an Olympics that would be a tinderbox for doping issues, one which Horton ignited at the pool before others, like American Lilly King, joined the pile on.

That Sun, who had once served a three-month doping ban in virtual secrecy, was at the heart of it all was no surprise. The Chinese star has a flair for the dramatic and rarely seems to be far away from controversy, to the point where he has emerged as one of the great Olympic villains, or heroes, depending on where you happen to reside.

In his home nation, he is an outright superstar; the two-metre tall captain of the Chinese swim team and on paper, one of the greatest freestylers in history, having been the only man to win Olympic gold over 200m (Rio), 400m (London) and 1500m (London).

He’s a revered figure and defended stoutly by Chinese fans and swimming officials. Criticise Sun and expect your social media channels to be clogged with insults and poo emojis. He has more than 32 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Some more fanatical devotees spend tens of thousands of dollars travelling to watch him compete where there is a meet of any note.

Write something negative and the inevitable cry of “FAKE NEWS” will emerge from the nation’s swimming administrators, who never waver in their loyalty to their greatest asset in and out of the water.

It was “FAKE NEWS” when the Sydney Morning Herald reported a Rio training pool run-in with Horton that would soon be the catalyst for one of Olympic swimming’s most-dramatic contests. And it was “FAKE NEWS” again in the past week when news emerged of Sun being involved in a staggering incident when doping officials arrived to test him at his house in Zhejian province.

The charges were explosive. In the report, Sun and his team were alleged to have had a disagreement with testers over the identification documents of one of the officials. The result saw Sun and a security guard apparently smash a vial of drawn blood with a hammer, an act that could have drawn a life ban from the sport.

Instead, a FINA doping panel let Sun off with a slap across the wrist, agreeing that some of the identification documents weren’t up to scratch and noting that the full story would never truly emerge. Defiant as always, Sun has promised legal action against The Sunday Times.

Swimmers across the world were gobsmacked by the result of the hearing, although few would have been entirely surprised with the outcome. Horton endorsed a tweet decrying the verdict but hasn’t spoken publically about his arch-rival since. He didn’t return messages from the Herald.

For others like Australian sprinter Cate Campbell, who is fast becoming a leading agitator for aquatic athletes, it was another example of FINA dropping the ball when it needed to step up to the mark. Campbell has already been at odds with FINA about their initial stance on a rebel swimming league, which has been scheduled to run later in the year.

“And athletes are constantly asked why we don’t have faith or show complete support for our governing bodies. Disgraceful. In every sense of the word,” Campbell wrote on Twitter.

The World Anti-Doping Agency had 21 days from the time it saw the entire FINA report to lodge an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That deadline is either closing or may have already lapsed, with WADA telling the Herald only that they are “aware of this case and that we are following up accordingly”.

Not many in the swimming world are holding their breath, so to speak. WADA has had the chance to lodge appeals in the past with Sun, declining to press the matter in 2014 when he was suspended behind closed doors for three months for testing positive to a banned stimulant.

Should they plough forward this time they would be taking on not only a champion athlete but a Chinese Olympic icon, who continues to be the most polarising figure in his sport. His meeting with Horton at this year’s FINA World Championships in Korea will be worth the price of admission alone.

Not everybody outside of China feels physically ill when they see Sun loping onto a podium. He has trained in Australia regularly over the years under the great coach Denis Cotterell, who recently retired from mentoring elite-level athletes.

“He’s actually a very sensitive guy,” Cotterell told the Olympics website. “He’s very emotional and he gets upset by a lot of the things that are said and written about him because a lot of it just isn’t true.”

Cotterell felt Sun, who once caused a diplomatic incident with Japan when he made comments about their anthem and also spent a week in a detention centre for a driving offence, had become a punching bag on account of his doping ban, which to this day he maintains was an innocent error surrounding a prescribed heart medication.

If you cut Sun, does he not bleed? Cleary he does. But good luck getting a sample to find out what it contains.

Phil Lutton | The Sydney Morning Herald

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