Since Chinese swimmer Sun Yang won two gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics, he has been the most dominant freestyle swimmer in the world. He’s the only swimmer in history to win either a World Championship or an Olympic gold medal in every freestyle distance from 200 meters to 1,500 meters. His rivals, however, dislike him not for his victories in the pool, but because of his history of being accused of doping.
Sun’s longtime 400-meter rival Mack Horton escalated tensions at the World Championships over the weekend, when he refused to share the podium with Sun or pose for photos with him. The Australian, who beat Sun in the 400-meter freestyle in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, took second place in South Korea yesterday, and he protested Sun’s victory during the medal ceremony.
Sun was suspended for three months in 2014 after he tested positive for a recently banned drug that he says he was prescribed to treat heart palpitations. Horton’s rivalry with Sun began at the 2016 Rio Olympics, when the Aussie accused Sun of splashing water on him during a training session. “I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive and are still competing.” Horton later said.
Last year, Sun was involved in a rather strange encounter with anti-doping officials. Officials from the International Doping Tests and Management showed up at his house on Sept. 4, though he made them wait outside for an hour before allowing them in. Once they set up shop to test Sun, he gave a blood sample but refused to give a urine sample, threatening the testers and questioning their credentials. The botched test ended with Sun’s bodyguards destroying the vial of blood. He justified the series of weird anti-doping protocol violations by claiming the IDTM personnel were unqualified (reportedly only one out of the three testers has proper accreditation) and that they were “secretly taking pictures and videos of him.”
Swimming’s governing body FINA accepted Sun’s defense and declined to discipline him, which enraged the World Anti-Doping Agency and Sun’s rivals. WADA pushed for a hearing with the Court for Arbitration of Sport, and if it sides with WADA against Sun and FINA, he faces a possible lifetime ban.
FINA warned Horton over his protest, though many of his fellow swimmers supported his stance. “It was pretty great to see the athletes united on his stance and supporting him as well,” Lilly King, who lodged a prominent anti-doping protest against a rival in 2016, said. “I don’t think anyone at FINA is going to stand up for the athletes, so the athletes have to stand up for themselves.”
Correction, 7/23, 11:35 a.m. ET: The 2012 Olympics took place in London, not Beijing.