GWANGJU, South Korea — A doping cloud has long hung over this sport and one of the world’s best swimmers, and at the world championships this week, it finally burst, submerging the event in silent and sullen protests directed at Sun Yang of China, a six-time Olympic medalist.
Sun collected his 11th world championship title Tuesday after the apparent winner, Danas Rapsys of Lithuania, was disqualified for moving on the blocks at the start of the 200-meter freestyle. Every sport needs a villain, and in swimming, a sneering Sun seems content to be that person. After each win, the swimming world directs its anger at him as the symbol of everything that is wrong with the sport.
Sun, 27, who seven years ago in London became the first man from China to win an Olympic swimming title, has brought much of this anger upon himself, beginning in 2014, when he served a three-month suspension after testing positive for trimetazidine. He could have obtained a therapeutic use exemption to use the stimulant legally to treat a heart condition. Ever since, his record-breaking career has stirred resentment, which was on full display on Tuesday at a competition that is second in prestige only to the Olympics.
On Sunday, the Australian Mack Horton refused to join Sun on the medals podium and dignify Sun’s victory in the 400-meter freestyle. The reigning Olympic champion, Horton, 23, finished second, then stood silently behind the podium, an act that earned him a public reprimand from FINA, the sport’s international governing body. Sun’s fans choked Horton’s social media feed with vitriol, including death threats.
That didn’t stop Duncan Scott of Britain from entering the fray Tuesday during the medals ceremony for the 200-meter freestyle. Scott, who tied for third, refused to shake Sun’s hand or pose for photographs with the winner after the medal ceremony.
Sun, a 6-foot-6 behemoth, pointed at Scott’s chest as they left the pool area and appeared to shout, “You loser, I’m winning, yes!”
Sun then continued goading Scott, who smiled and kept walking.
Sun was not made available for a news conference because he was stuck in a routine, postrace drug test. If there was any doubt, it seems clear now that he will continue serving as the star whose history illuminates the complications of cleaning up the sport, in part because of his own behavior. Sun, whom Horton described as a “drug cheat” during the 2016 Olympics, invited more scrutiny in September when he smashed a vial of blood with a hammer to prevent antidoping test collectors from leaving his home with a sample.
While warming up for her victory in the 100-meter breaststroke, the American Lilly King happened to look up at a giant video screen in time to watch the medal ceremony unfold in all its glory. King has been outspoken in her disdain for drug cheats and FINA, whose efforts to clean up the sport she finds severely lacking, and she expressed admiration for Scott.
“What he did was incredibly brave,” she said, noting that Scott surely will face consequences.
“FINA has currently done more to reprimand Mack Horton than they have to reprimand Sun Yang,” she said.
Whether that is true no longer seems to matter to many top swimmers, especially those from the United States, Australia and Britain. Sun was just a toddler in 1994 when 10 Chinese swimmers tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. China was subsequently barred from the 1995 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, and the incident created a lingering veil of suspicion in the West.
While Sun’s method of rendering the test null and void was extreme, it is not unheard-of for athletes to express discomfort with some aspect of the testing process.
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, said athletes sometimes balked at providing a sample for various reasons, and when that happens they are encouraged to contact a doping official to talk through their concerns. In an email exchange, Tygart said: “I’ve probably talked to 12 to 24 over the past 10 years to explain the process and answer any questions. Never have we had a sample being given and then destroyed by the athlete.”
Athletes tend to approach drug tests with the same attention to detail as pilots carrying out their preflight plane inspections, and for good reason: A positive result can ground careers and ruin reputations.
Nathan Adrian, an eight-time Olympic medalist, said there have been times when he has reached out to USADA officials for clarification about some aspect of the testing procedure. And if he was still discomfited by the collection process?
“I would follow the doping control officer and not let that sample out of my sight until it was at the FedEx station and gone,” Adrian said. “And on the way I would call USADA and find out if the paperwork was legitimate.”
In Sun’s case, an independent panel heard arguments from both sides and then ruled in his favor. Sun’s refusal to provide a sample did not violate antidoping rules, it said, because the collectors failed to provide the proper validation papers required to draw blood under the International Standard for Testing and Investigations.
“It was probably a very tough call and the tie went to the athlete,” Tygart said.
The World Anti-Doping Agency is pursuing a more severe punishment for Sun from the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the sports world’s ultimate judicial body, but the hearing isn’t until September.
Horton, angered that Sun’s case wasn’t resolved before this competition, carried out his podium protest with trepidation because of the consequences he knew would be coming.
“I was aware that the Australian athlete had dissatisfaction and personal feelings toward me,” Sun said, through an interpreter, after his 400 freestyle victory. “Disrespecting me is O.K., but disrespecting China was very unfortunate and I feel sorry about that.”
King said she watched athletes from all over the world applaud Horton when he entered the dining hall Sunday night. But Horton drew criticism in other quarters. Richard Ings, the former chief executive of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency, said in a tweet that Horton deserved to be fined for his behavior.
In a radio interview Monday with the Melbourne-based Sports Entertainment Network 1116, Ings described himself as “no great fan of Sun Yang,” but said, “I do believe that athletes are treading a very treacherous path if they are making allegations against other individuals that they cannot substantiate.”
Swimming’s international governing body also censured Horton, releasing a statement saying that FINA events are no place “to make personal statements or gestures.”
Message received. After his preliminary swim Tuesday in the 800-meter freestyle, Horton sidestepped questions about his protest. “The focus now is the team’s performances and making sure we get through the week,” he said.
Six thousand miles away, in Southern California, Shirley Babashoff expressed her appreciation for Horton’s stand. In 1976, after competing against a doped-up East German team, she asked her American coaches if she could skip her final individual Olympic medals ceremony. They told her she could not, even though she had broken the record for the 800-meter freestyle but finished second to a swimmer the world now knows was part of a government-sponsored doping program.
“When you’re not being heard,” she said, “that’s the way to go.”