Infotainment Factory: The dark secret that has ruined Sun Yang

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Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The dark secret that has ruined Sun Yang


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The China Anti-Doping Agency called it "huge bad news" - and turned it into an unmitigated disaster.

Sun Yang tested positive to a banned stimulant during China's 2014 national championships, by which time he was a double Olympic gold medallist, dual world champion and 1500m world record holder. Bad news indeed.

He served a three-month ban from May to August; lenient but perhaps justifiable. Sun tested positive for trimetazidine, a substance that was only added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list that January. The swimmer argued that he used the drug to treat a heart condition.

Trimetazidine is usually prescribed for angina, though it is considered performance-enhancing in athletes because it improves the body's use of oxygen. When Sun took the drug, it was only banned in-competition; it was allowed for use under medical supervision out of competition, but Sun tested positive via an in-competition sample.

CHINADA determined Sun had been unaware that trimetazidine had been added to WADA's banned list. His doping offence was deemed unintentional. The vested interest of the state-run agency was blindingly obvious, in a nation with an extremely chequered doping history where top athletes are treated as unassailable heroes.

But here is the real reason that swimming went into meltdown over the ban.

After Sun tested positive on May 17, the China Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) did not publicly announce the result, or news of the suspension, until late November.

China took more than six months to tell the world that its swimming megastar was now a doping violator, when WADA requires adverse results to be made public within 20 days.

Sun's ban ended in time for him to compete in the Asian Games in September and CHINADA's silence meant that he did not face public backlash over his doping ban, which ended only the month before. He won three gold medals.

It looked incredibly shady and sparked mass outrage. Rather than getting on the front foot and presenting a reasoned account from the outset, China had opted for convenient secrecy. The belated bombshell brought immediate shockwaves, and those still being felt.

Swimming Australia banned Sun from training on Australian soil, forcing a split with his Gold Coast-based coach, Denis Cotterell; the man who mentored dual Olympic 1500m champion Grant Hackett.

CHINADA's deputy director Zhao Jian spoke to China's official state news agency, Xinhua, and denied that his agency had engaged in a cover-up.

"Sun is the most famous athlete in China and is known in the world, which means we need to handle his case very cautiously," Zhao said.

"This is huge bad news but we will not cover it up.

"We announce positive cases and test statistics in our quarterly reports just as WADA requires."

Yet the announcement in no way satisfied WADA's requirements. And it only served to cast a dark cloud over Sun's career. The secretive nature of his ban, combined with its leniency, left an indelible stain.

WADA was given no more information than the public. The anti-doping body was still chasing full details of Sun's case after CHINADA dropped its bombshell.

WADA, upon receiving Sun's case file, had the option of appealing CHINADA's lenient penalty in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Curiously, by December it had chosen not to do so, only giving CHINADA a mild rebuke for its delayed reporting.

Trimetazidine has since been reclassified: banned at all times and downgraded from banned stimulant to metabolic modulator. In that category, it sits alongside another drug that has recently sent shockwaves through sport: meldonium.

Maria Sharapova was banned from tennis for two years after testing positive to meldonium. Her ban was reduced to 15 months on appeal; still five times the length of Sun's suspension, for one of the world's most famous athletes.

Like Sun, Sharapova was caught out by the addition of her drug to WADA's banned list. It was banned on January 1, 2016, and the Russian megastar tested positive at the Australian Open that month; despite five separate warnings the previous month about meldonium's impending prohibited status.

Sharapova's excuse was exactly the same as Sun's: heart problems. The Russian admitted to taking the drug across a 10-year period. A prescribed course of treatment for meldonium is four to six weeks.

Sharapova insisted that she had not used meldonium as a performance-enhancer. An International Tennis Federation panel concluded otherwise, handing down the two-year ban that was later reduced by nine months at the CAS.

Sun and Sharapova will never shake the stigma of being banned dopers, regardless of the mitigating circumstances in their cases. Right or wrong, that's how these things go.

And while Sharapova has resumed her tennis career, struggling to regain any semblance of the form that made her a modern great, Sun has cruised on as though nothing has happened. His swimming rivals perceived a deep injustice had been committed and their resentment festered - leading to the Mack Horton incident.

By Horton's account, Sun waved a red rag: the Chinese swimmer splashed water in the Australian's face during a training session at the Olympic aquatic venue, right before the Rio 2016 Games.

Horton later told the media: "He kind of splashed me to say hi and I ignored him because I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats."

Sun was outraged: "I don't care too much what the Australian athlete says … I'm clean. I've done everything it takes to prove I'm clean."

Yet the stench of 2014's secretive drug ban still lingered. Horton spoke for many and his 400m freestyle victory over Sun, having called him out, was hailed as an iconic anti-doping moment.

“I don’t think it is a big statement because it is true, he has tested positive,” Horton said.

“No athlete has really come forward and said it. It wouldn’t have felt right if I raced against someone who had tested positive and didn’t bring it up. Hopefully others will follow.”

Soon, other swimmers were openly questioning why Sun was even swimming at the Olympics, despite two years having passed since his ban.

"For an athlete that's clean it's really frustrating. Once the Games are over, we'll all look back and wish this was handled better," said Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane, who was second behind Sun in the 1500m at London 2012; an Olympic gold medallist if not for the controversial Chinese megastar.

Sun, who won 200m freestyle gold in Rio, denied that Horton had gotten into his head. "I don't think we need to concern ourselves with the Australian's mind tricks," he said.

Yet here we are. Three years later, another Olympics looming, and Horton taking his condemnation of Sun to a whole new level with his podium protest at the ongoing FINA World Championships in South Korea.

Horton has been hailed a hero by his fellow swimmers. British swimmer Duncan Scott matched the Australia's protest and declared himself "Team Mack". Calls of "drug cheat" are still ringing in Sun's ears. And his day in court it coming.

WADA didn't opt out of an appeal this time. Sun is due to face the CAS in September, facing the charge of missing a doping test at his home in September last year - in the most bizarre circumstances.

According to a FINA report, Sun had a vial containing his blood smashed with a hammer during a mishandled visit by doping control officers. The report - which can be read here - details a shambolic attempt to collect urine and blood samples from Sun, who took issue with the accreditation of the officers and also discovered that he was being photographed and filmed surreptitiously on a phone during their visit.

Sun also destroyed a paper copy of his doping control form after ruining the blood vials. According to FINA's report, the decision to ruin the blood samples with a hammer was taken by Sun and Ba Zhen, the China swimming team doctor who arrived at the megastar's home at 1am to intervene.

Sun was cleared of an anti-doping violation by the FINA Doping Panel; which condemned the swimmer for taking a "foolish gamble" with his career but concluded that his doping control had been inadequately conducted.

It remains to be seen what the CAS will decide. A life ban is one possibility. In one regard, the outcome doesn't matter.

Mud sticks. Sun Yang, innocent or guilty, is covered in it.

Sun is a pariah among his fellow swimmers. Sports fans, from casual to fanatic, have watched a mass rejection of the megastar unfold in Gwangju.

His supporters harbour a deep sense of injustice. Cotterell, who has resumed as his coach, gave an impassioned defence of Sun in which he claimed that that Chinese swimmer was just as clean as Australian icon Hackett.

Yet whatever the truth of his case, Sun Yang is a tainted athlete. His reputation, outside of China at least, is all but ruined.

In the minds of his peers, if not the history books, every medal he has ever won will be marked with a dark asterisk.

The China Anti-Doping Agency called it "huge bad news" - and turned it into an unmitigated disaster.

Sun Yang tested positive to a banned stimulant during China's 2014 national championships, by which time he was a double Olympic gold medallist, dual world champion and 1500m world record holder. Bad news indeed.

He served a three-month ban from May to August; lenient but perhaps justifiable. Sun tested positive for trimetazidine, a substance that was only added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list that January. The swimmer argued that he used the drug to treat a heart condition.

Trimetazidine is usually prescribed for angina, though it is considered performance-enhancing in athletes because it improves the body's use of oxygen. When Sun took the drug, it was only banned in-competition; it was allowed for use under medical supervision out of competition, but Sun tested positive via an in-competition sample.

CHINADA determined Sun had been unaware that trimetazidine had been added to WADA's banned list. His doping offence was deemed unintentional. The vested interest of the state-run agency was blindingly obvious, in a nation with an extremely chequered doping history where top athletes are treated as unassailable heroes.

But here is the real reason that swimming went into meltdown over the ban.

After Sun tested positive on May 17, the China Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) did not publicly announce the result, or news of the suspension, until late November.

China took more than six months to tell the world that its swimming megastar was now a doping violator, when WADA requires adverse results to be made public within 20 days.

Sun's ban ended in time for him to compete in the Asian Games in September and CHINADA's silence meant that he did not face public backlash over his doping ban, which ended only the month before. He won three gold medals.

It looked incredibly shady and sparked mass outrage. Rather than getting on the front foot and presenting a reasoned account from the outset, China had opted for convenient secrecy. The belated bombshell brought immediate shockwaves, and those still being felt.

Swimming Australia banned Sun from training on Australian soil, forcing a split with his Gold Coast-based coach, Denis Cotterell; the man who mentored dual Olympic 1500m champion Grant Hackett.

CHINADA's deputy director Zhao Jian spoke to China's official state news agency, Xinhua, and denied that his agency had engaged in a cover-up.

"Sun is the most famous athlete in China and is known in the world, which means we need to handle his case very cautiously," Zhao said.

"This is huge bad news but we will not cover it up.

"We announce positive cases and test statistics in our quarterly reports just as WADA requires."

Yet the announcement in no way satisfied WADA's requirements. And it only served to cast a dark cloud over Sun's career. The secretive nature of his ban, combined with its leniency, left an indelible stain.

WADA was given no more information than the public. The anti-doping body was still chasing full details of Sun's case after CHINADA dropped its bombshell.

WADA, upon receiving Sun's case file, had the option of appealing CHINADA's lenient penalty in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Curiously, by December it had chosen not to do so, only giving CHINADA a mild rebuke for its delayed reporting.

Trimetazidine has since been reclassified: banned at all times and downgraded from banned stimulant to metabolic modulator. In that category, it sits alongside another drug that has recently sent shockwaves through sport: meldonium.

Maria Sharapova was banned from tennis for two years after testing positive to meldonium. Her ban was reduced to 15 months on appeal; still five times the length of Sun's suspension, for one of the world's most famous athletes.

Like Sun, Sharapova was caught out by the addition of her drug to WADA's banned list. It was banned on January 1, 2016, and the Russian megastar tested positive at the Australian Open that month; despite five separate warnings the previous month about meldonium's impending prohibited status.

Sharapova's excuse was exactly the same as Sun's: heart problems. The Russian admitted to taking the drug across a 10-year period. A prescribed course of treatment for meldonium is four to six weeks.

Sharapova insisted that she had not used meldonium as a performance-enhancer. An International Tennis Federation panel concluded otherwise, handing down the two-year ban that was later reduced by nine months at the CAS.

Sun and Sharapova will never shake the stigma of being banned dopers, regardless of the mitigating circumstances in their cases. Right or wrong, that's how these things go.

And while Sharapova has resumed her tennis career, struggling to regain any semblance of the form that made her a modern great, Sun has cruised on as though nothing has happened. His swimming rivals perceived a deep injustice had been committed and their resentment festered - leading to the Mack Horton incident.

By Horton's account, Sun waved a red rag: the Chinese swimmer splashed water in the Australian's face during a training session at the Olympic aquatic venue, right before the Rio 2016 Games.

Horton later told the media: "He kind of splashed me to say hi and I ignored him because I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats."

Sun was outraged: "I don't care too much what the Australian athlete says … I'm clean. I've done everything it takes to prove I'm clean."

Yet the stench of 2014's secretive drug ban still lingered. Horton spoke for many and his 400m freestyle victory over Sun, having called him out, was hailed as an iconic anti-doping moment.

“I don’t think it is a big statement because it is true, he has tested positive,” Horton said.

“No athlete has really come forward and said it. It wouldn’t have felt right if I raced against someone who had tested positive and didn’t bring it up. Hopefully others will follow.”

Soon, other swimmers were openly questioning why Sun was even swimming at the Olympics, despite two years having passed since his ban.

"For an athlete that's clean it's really frustrating. Once the Games are over, we'll all look back and wish this was handled better," said Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane, who was second behind Sun in the 1500m at London 2012; an Olympic gold medallist if not for the controversial Chinese megastar.

Sun, who won 200m freestyle gold in Rio, denied that Horton had gotten into his head. "I don't think we need to concern ourselves with the Australian's mind tricks," he said.

Yet here we are. Three years later, another Olympics looming, and Horton taking his condemnation of Sun to a whole new level with his podium protest at the ongoing FINA World Championships in South Korea.

Horton has been hailed a hero by his fellow swimmers. British swimmer Duncan Scott matched the Australia's protest and declared himself "Team Mack". Calls of "drug cheat" are still ringing in Sun's ears. And his day in court it coming.

WADA didn't opt out of an appeal this time. Sun is due to face the CAS in September, facing the charge of missing a doping test at his home in September last year - in the most bizarre circumstances.

According to a FINA report, Sun had a vial containing his blood smashed with a hammer during a mishandled visit by doping control officers. The report - which can be read here - details a shambolic attempt to collect urine and blood samples from Sun, who took issue with the accreditation of the officers and also discovered that he was being photographed and filmed surreptitiously on a phone during their visit.

Sun also destroyed a paper copy of his doping control form after ruining the blood vials. According to FINA's report, the decision to ruin the blood samples with a hammer was taken by Sun and Ba Zhen, the China swimming team doctor who arrived at the megastar's home at 1am to intervene.

Sun was cleared of an anti-doping violation by the FINA Doping Panel; which condemned the swimmer for taking a "foolish gamble" with his career but concluded that his doping control had been inadequately conducted.

It remains to be seen what the CAS will decide. A life ban is one possibility. In one regard, the outcome doesn't matter.

Mud sticks. Sun Yang, innocent or guilty, is covered in it.

Sun is a pariah among his fellow swimmers. Sports fans, from casual to fanatic, have watched a mass rejection of the megastar unfold in Gwangju.

His supporters harbour a deep sense of injustice. Cotterell, who has resumed as his coach, gave an impassioned defence of Sun in which he claimed that that Chinese swimmer was just as clean as Australian icon Hackett.

Yet whatever the truth of his case, Sun Yang is a tainted athlete. His reputation, outside of China at least, is all but ruined.

In the minds of his peers, if not the history books, every medal he has ever won will be marked with a dark asterisk.

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