More Sports / Swimming

Future of disgraced swimmer Sun Yang in hands of WADA

AP

One of China’s biggest Olympic stars was to undergo a rare public hearing in a doping case on Friday with his 2020 Tokyo Games place at stake.

Three-time gold medalist swimmer Sun Yang is facing a World Anti-Doping Agency appeal in Switzerland that seeks to ban him for up to eight years for allegedly refusing to give samples voluntarily.

The case is notorious for a vial of his blood being smashed with a hammer by his bodyguard. Sun allegedly helped by lighting the scene with his cellphone.

It’s a colorful detail of a late-night dispute between Sun’s entourage and officials trying to take blood and urine samples after visiting his home in China.

However, much of the case hangs on protocol and paperwork: Did the three anti-doping officials in China conduct themselves properly and have correct authorization documents to make their September 2018 visit valid?

A tribunal appointed by world swim body FINA sided with Sun and merely warned him, though noted “it was a close-run thing.”

“It is safe to describe the entire (visit) as problematic, highly unusual and, at times, confrontational,” the FINA panel wrote in a 59-page ruling, also noting “troubling and rather aggressive” conduct by Sun and his entourage.

WADA believes Sun violated rules by refusing to provide samples requested on a properly scheduled visit. The agency challenged the FINA panel’s verdict with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Sun countered by opting to have evidence and testimony aired in a first open-court CAS hearing for 20 years.

More than 100 media were expected at a Swiss lakeside hotel in the upscale, jazz festival city of Montreux. An online live stream was expected to intrigue lawyers monitoring worldwide.

National fame

Sun’s medal record ranks with swimming’s greats and his fame at home is as big as Yao Ming’s, the former NBA center.

The 2-meter tall Sun is the first Chinese man to win Olympic gold in swimming, in the 400- meter freestyle at the 2012 London Games. He added the 1,500 title in London, and the 200 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

He parlayed a bad boy image — including a 2013 car crash driving a Porsche SUV without a license — into a lucrative portfolio of commercial deals and 30 million followers on social media channel Weibo.

His 11 world titles include the 200 and 400 freestyle in July that provoked anger in opponents. Medalists Mack Horton of Australia and Duncan Scott of Britain refused to stand with him on the podium in South Korea.

Polarizing figure

Horton went as far as accusing Sun of being a cheat as rivalries flared at the 2016 Olympics, and bad feeling continued into the 2019 worlds.

Sun tested positive for a banned stimulant, citing a prescribed heart medication, and served a three-month ban in 2014. Soon after he won three titles at the Asian Games. WADA did not challenge that Chinese ruling.

Secrecy about the case fueled skepticism over special treatment. China’s sports authorities and FINA published no details until after the ban ended.

This year, American, Australian and British swimmers objected to Sun competing at the worlds while WADA’s appeal was pending.

Amid crowd boos, Sun told the protesting Scott poolside: “You’re a loser. I’m a winner.”

Two-time world swimmer of the year Adam Peaty said of Sun: “He should be asking himself now, should he really be in a sport when people are booing him?”

The latest case

World-class athletes must inform anti-doping authorities where and when they will be available for one hour each day to give samples.

A three-person sample team included a female lead official working for Sweden-based International Doping Tests & Management (IDTM), a female nurse to draw Sun’s blood, and a male chaperone to accompany the athlete giving urine. They waited at Sun’s home between 10 and 11 p.m. on Sept. 4 last year. Sun arrived just inside the deadline.

Events unfolded at a nearby clubhouse. Blood was drawn but Sun objected to credentials for the chaperone who he alleged improperly used a phone to take photos and video of him. Sun later deleted images from the cellphone.

In an escalating row, a newly arrived (and twice banned) team doctor questioned the nurse’s authorization and argued to prevent the blood vial leaving.

Sun’s mother instructed the bodyguard to get a hammer.

First verdict

The three FINA judges said Sun was “foolish in the extreme” to allegedly gamble on his version of events beating charges he evaded and tampered with a sample.

Still, the panel wrote of “compelling justification” for Sun not to deal with a chaperone whose conduct was “extremely unprofessional.” The chaperone did not testify.

The nurse’s qualification was also questioned and the collection visit was ruled “invalid and void.”

Its confidential verdict dated Jan. 3 leaked that month to Britain’s Sunday Times.

Meanwhile, if the CAS panel upholds the appeal, Sun’s previous ban means he risks a heavier sanction for a second offense.

WADA wants a ban of two to eight years. A two-year ban backdated to September 2018 would bar Sun from the Tokyo Olympics and strip him of recent world titles. It could end the career of Sun, who turns 28 on Dec. 1.

The verdict from CAS is expected early next year.