Featured image: David E Klutho, USA TODAY Sports
On 28 February 2020, the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed down a guilty verdict and an eight-year ban to Chinese swimmer Sun Yang. This outcome resulted from nearly four months of hearings, deliberations, and tantrums in the Swiss town of Montreux and formally designated Sun as a drug cheat. Two years on, the ripple effect of this decision carves a problematic precedent regarding drug use in sports.
As the COVID-belated 2022 FINA World Championships begin in Budapest this weekend, the best swimmers in the world will either descend in competition or take a deserved break after last year’s Olympic Games – with one notable exception.
Australian swimmer Mack Horton faced the wrath of the Chinese media during the 2016 Summer Olympics when he publicly labelled Sun Yang a drug cheat. Since then, the Australian media has collectively demonised the 30-year-old Chinese freestyle swimmer out of public favour.
And on the surface, what’s wrong with that? Sun Yang is, by any definition, a drug cheat. But the case of Sun Yang resists simplicity, and it’s time the culture of drug vilification in sports is properly examined. Because not only is it unhealthy – it’s deadly.
Though not widely known, FINA (the global body governing aquatic sports, including swimming, diving, and water polo) has until recently been one of the most successful sporting organisations in the field of doping prevention. In fact, the body has come under fire for the strictness of its rules, notably the 2017 twelve-month ban issued to Australian swimmer Thomas Fraser-Holmes, who missed three drug tests in a year – tests that are by their nature random and unannounced, only allowing a single hour for an athlete to provide a sample.
But from the get-go, FINA has been soft on Sun Yang.
Sun returned a positive test for the banned substance Trimetazidine in 2014 and was handed a back-dated three-month ban by the Chinese Swimming Association (the Chinese FINA affiliate body) that didn’t restrict his entry to any international events. This is incredibly inconsistent when compared to Fraser-Holmes’ twelve-month ban, received without a single positive test.
Pertinently, however, the drug was prescribed to Sun by a doctor six years prior to treating heart palpitations. The drug had only been banned a few months before Sun’s positive test; a fact Sun maintains he was not alerted to. Today, Sun continues to use the drug with a medical exemption, as it is not considered by sporting authorities to be performance-enhancing when used outside of competition.
The Culture of Drug Prohibition in Sport
The prohibition of medically prescribed drugs from competition does not, in any material sense, level the playing field. Instead, it puts athletes at risk.
Australian-Hong Kong swimmer Kenneth To suffered similar symptoms to Sun Yang. In 2019, To felt unwell after a practice session in Florida. The issue – To’s heart had not slowed down to a regular rhythm after exercising. After being taken to hospital, To died of Sudden Cardiac Arrest, aged 26. While we can’t speculate about To’s medication access, his death reminds us that even elite athletes can die suddenly from a heart condition.
In this context, the hostility shown towards Sun by swimmers like Horton and the Australian media looks much less like courage and more like aggression.
In any practical sense, most sports analysts and journalists tend to agree that the goal of cleaning up sport is not attainable. Widespread, unregulated use of performance-enhancing drugs has been a concern for sporting governing bodies for decades and has not gone away.
But while the discussion of the legalisation of sports doping is ongoing and complex, performance-enhancing drugs remain prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which views doping violations as breeches of ‘the spirit of sport’.
But Australian academic and analyst Julian Savulescu wonders how legal and freely available drugs in sport would violate this ‘spirit’, which includes pillars like excellence in performance, community and solidarity, and teamwork.
‘For many athletes, sport is not safe enough without drugs,’ Savulescu argues in his 2004 paper, Why we should allow performance-enhancing drugs in sport.
‘If [an athlete] suffer[s] from asthma, high blood pressure, or cardiac arrhythmia, sport places their bodies under unique stresses, which raises the likelihood of chronic or catastrophic harm.
‘For example, between 1985 and 1995, at least 121 US athletes collapsed and died directly after or during a training session or competition—most often because they had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or heart malformations.
‘The relatively high incidence of sudden cardiac death in young athletes has prompted the American Heart Association to recommend that all athletes undergo cardiac screening before being allowed to train or compete.’
In many instances, experimental or therapeutic drugs publicly available to anyone in most countries are not available to athletes. Former NRL player Sandor Earl is one example of the double standard. After accessing experimental peptide treatment to recover from a shoulder reconstruction, Earl was banned by the NRL for four years. This was despite his drug treatment not specifically influencing his performance outside recovery and ASADA dropping their probe into Earl (notable, however, in this case, was the additional charge of drug trafficking).
In many ways, the quest for superhuman performance at any cost dehumanises athletes and puts them in avoidable physical danger.
Sun Yang has become a particularly popular villain in swimming – other positive drug tests haven’t seemed to draw the same ire as Sun’s, and Mack Horton’s silence after his Australian teammate Shayna Jack’s positive test in 2019 was not lost on fans of the Chinese star.
South African swimmer Chad le Clos sensationally accused Sun of being ‘dirty’ when the Chinese swimmer came from behind to beat him in the 2016 200m Freestyle event.
‘I was ahead by a long way with 50m to go in that race, but Sun Yang came past me,’ le Clos said.
‘He was the only man who did that, and that says it all, really … Sun passed me like I was standing still in the last 25m, which is unheard of.’ Swimming commentators at the time, however, disputed this claim, noting le Clos wasted more energy than his competitors on his poor final turn.
Attacked from many sides, paranoia brought about Sun’s eventual second doping ban – this time, without a positive test. After giving blood and urine samples to three anti-doping assistants (DCA) at his home on 4 September 2018, Sun sensationally took a hammer from his garden shed and destroyed the samples.
Unsurprisingly, the embattled swimmer became, again, an easy villain for the Australian press. How could he not? Sun’s fans have abused several high-profile athletes who commented on his case – including basketballer Andrew Bogut and British swimmer Duncan Scott – and his abrasive personality hasn’t made him many friends in the sporting world. Sun’s shed became the butt of many jokes among pundits, as did his “fearsome Tiger mother”.
Few commentators managed, however, to observe that a doping test taking place in a shed is not protocol and that Sun did not in fact bring a hammer with him to a test, as was often purported. Few still reported that after providing samples, Sun observed a DCA taking photos of him. When confronted, the DCA could not provide any accreditation, even claiming to be a construction worker. None of the DCAs had brought any accreditation at all.
More confounding still is the allegation from Sun’s Australian coach, Dennis Cotterell, that the drug test conducted on the 4 September 2018 was his ninth in two weeks (the other tests were conducted during the Asian Games, and all returned negative results).
Speaking to Glass Media in 2021, Australian Olympic Silver Medallist Jack McLoughlin had little sympathy for Sun and suggested most other swimmers felt the same way.
‘As someone who thinks what he did is despicable and as someone who is racing him, I did find the 8-year ban to be really harsh,’ McLoughlin said.
‘I think that was a big statement against what he did.’
‘Even if he was concerned with how the test was carried out, with all of our tests we complete there’s areas in the forms where you can report what you weren’t happy about. If the panel thinks that it’s valid, they will scrap the test, no matter what happened. So, there was no real reason for him to do what he did.’
‘We are meticulous with that stuff, when I look at a vial even if I see a speck of dirt in it, I request a new testing tube. Just flat-out refusing is a no-no. We all agreed that he should be banned for something like that.’
Sun’s farcical defence at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2019 and 2020 was easily lambastable in the international media, including his refusal to respond to questioning and his attempted boycott of the court. But his initial hearing was also deeply marred by translation issues, which caused frustration among judges and lawyers. The unnamed DCA, who had been unable to provide accreditation at the time of Sun’s drug test also admitted to being a construction worker via written testimony.
The eight-year ban handed down by the CAS may have seemed inevitable, but in context, the case of Sun Yang is far from straightforward. Sun is a helpful villain for a sports media industry concerned by the threat to western sporting dominance posed by China.
But when considering his actual crimes, it’s nearly impossible to justify an eight-year ban. In fact, last year the Court of Arbitration for Sport halved Sun’s ban from eight years to four, clearing the way for his Olympic return in 2024. On the other hand, Australian Swimmer Shayna Jack, who actually tested positive for a banned substance in 2019, will make her return to international swimming tomorrow at the 2022 FINA World Championships.
Sun will not be in the pool. Though he remains the Men’s 1500m Freestyle World Record holder, at 30 years old, whether he will race again professionally remains to be seen.
Sun has always carved a lonely figure at major meets and is by all accounts difficult for other swimmers to be around. Sun’s confrontations with his competitors have been difficult to justify, even for his fans. When Duncan Scott refused to share a podium with Sun in 2019, he infamously berated Scott, calling him a ‘loser’.
Personally, I also find it difficult to detach Sun’s cantankerous personality from his swimming performances. At a swimming camp in 2015, my high-school team stayed at the same Runaway Bay complex where Sun used to train. It was, and remains, the only time I have ever seen a swimmer, elite or otherwise, train completely alone.
Sun was accompanied only by the five or six assistant coaches by the pool-side – also the only time I’ve ever seen a squad in which the coaches outnumbered the swimmers.
But an abrasive personality is not enough to justify a career-ending ban. It’s difficult to defend Sun Yang, and it’s important to criticise him – but doing both is possible. And necessary.