Mack Horton’s medal dais protest at the World Swimming Championships in Gwang-ju, South Korea, has sent shockwaves through world sport and has raised questions about who is a drug cheat and how should they be treated.
By refusing to step onto the podium in the silver medal position, alongside China’s gold medallist, Sun Yang, it is Horton being lauded as the champion — for continuing his strong stance against anti-doping.
It’s a position Horton adopted at the Rio Olympic Games where he made it clear in a press conference, while sitting alongside Sun, he wanted the sports governing body to come down stronger on drug cheats and have them banned for life — Sun Yang included.
Sun has a troubled history.
Considered among the greatest swimmers of all time, he continues to be dogged by drug allegations.
First, Sun already has failed one test.
In 2014 Sun tested positive to a medication he had been using to treat an on-going heart condition.
But even that is more complicated than first may appear.
His doctor claimed he was unaware the drug had been added to WADA’s banned list five months earlier.
He was required to apply for what is known as a Therapeutic Use Exemption, or TUE, to continue using the drug.
Such exemptions are common in international sport: gold medal-winning Australian athletes have used them.
For this technical breach, Sun was given a three-month suspension while his doctor was given a one-year ban.
The substance — trimetazidine — was listed as a stimulant and was banned in competition only.
It has since been downgraded, while still remaining illegal.
While that case has been dealt with, and no appeal lodged, a cloud still hangs over Sun Yang.
Horton has been lauded for his decision not to step onto the podium next to Sun Yang. (AP: Lee Jin-man)
Sun is awaiting a Court of Arbitration hearing brought by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) after it appealed against a “not guilty” verdict by an anti-doping tribunal following the destruction of a vial of his blood taken at an out-of-competition test at his home in September 2018. WADA reserves the right to appeal any anti-doping decision.
The vial was destroyed after Chinese officials refused to comply with two doping control officers who were not qualified to conduct the test.
The action was taken on the advice of the swimmer’s lawyer.
The Chinese team was locked in a stand-off with anti-doping officers, whose Sweden-based supervisor was dialled in.
It was then that a security guard destroyed the vial with a hammer.
Sun’s case of destroying samples is not an isolated one.
Former boss of Australia’s anti-doping authority, Richard Ings, confirmed he has dealt with similar cases.
@ringsau tweet: In cases, I have been involved in athletes have tipped out their urine sample.
“If a sample was not collected then the athlete has to explain the circumstances,” he tweeted.
“If the circumstances of non-compliance by testers is compelling then the charge of refusal is dismissed.”
Mack Horton and Sun Yang have a bitter history.
The Australian swimmer targeted his rival at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Horton made it clear he believed Sun had no place in the sport.
@ringsau tweet: I am no fan of Sun Yang. But he has served his suspension for a doping violation and he has been cleared by a FINA panel of refusing to provide a sample.
“I used the words ‘drug cheat’ because he tested positive — I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive and are still competing,” he said.
Horton’s zero-tolerance approach raises the question: what would happen if it was an Australian that fell foul of the same procedures with extenuating circumstances?
Indeed, that has happened. Like Sun, they were allowed to keep competing; unlike Sun they were not the focus of public protest. As it stands right now though, Sun is free to compete.
The WADA appeal will be held in September, Sun and his team want the hearing to be open to the public.
What swimming has right now is a very public brawl: two fierce rivals — Horton and Sun — a World Championships marred by drug allegations, overshadowing performances in the pool, and a drug testing system that satisfies no one.