After winning second place in the 400m freestyle at the World Aquatics Championships, Australian swimmer Mack Horton refused to share the podium with Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, which lead to furious reactions in China.
The conflict between the two swimmers dates back to the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Mack Horton called Sun Yang a ‘drug cheat’ after defeating him. Speaking of his decision to not take a picture with Sun, Horton told Australian media ABC that he was frustrated: “I think you know in what respect. I don’t think I need to say anything. His actions and how it has been handled speaks louder than anything I could say.”
Horton was referring to the frequent drug scandals that have been surrounding Sun Yang, who is regarded almost as a national hero in China. Sun was suspended back in 2014 for three months over doping violations and is currently under another round of investigations. Sun could be banned from participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics should the final verdict not be in his favor.
Earlier this year, Sun was reported to have refused to provide urine samples to the investigators while also trying to destroy potential evidence. Although the FINA doping panel ruled in favour of Sun earlier in 2019 on alleged drug violation charges, the World Anti-Doping Agency is seeking to overturn the decision by filing an appeal on the panel’s decision.
Sun Yang Utilizing his nation to support his career
Commenting on Mack Horton, Sun Yang said that he was aware of his comments and expressed his disappointment with the fact that the Australian swimmer touched upon his country by saying: “Disrespecting me was OK, but disrespecting China was unfortunate.”
Sun regards himself as the pride of the nation, who wins medals to honor China on the international stage: “There are many people who do not like me, but this gold medal is the best answer to those people,” he said.
Nearly all Chinese media sided with Sun despite the previous reports of his meddling with the anti-doping investigations. Thousands of online commenters flocked to criticize Mack Horton, calling him ‘a pathetic Australian wild dog’ and urging him to retire from swimming, since he could never defeat Sun in the pool.
Back in 2016, after calling Sun Yang a drug cheat, Mack Horton was trolled on Instagram. According to reports from Swimswam, there were more than 500,000 angry comments under Horton’s posts, coming from Chinese netizens.
This title is the fourth World Champion title Sun has won in the 400m freestyle at the World Aquatic Championship events. This is also the tenth Gold Medal Sun has won in World Championship competitions overall.
Fellow Swimmers Supporting Horton
While Chinese media and local swimming fans are angry with Mack Horton for his continued allegations against Sun Yang, several fellow swimmers have voiced their support for Horton and his fight against prohibited substances and preserving the integrity of the sport.
“Absolutely awesome to see Mack Horton protesting clean sport by not getting up on the podium next to Sun Yang #cleansport,” tweeted David McKeon, who swam the 4x200m relay with Horton in Rio.
Five-time Olympic gold medallist Melanie Wright wrote: “Congratulations Mack Horton — Olympic and World champion; shame you won’t get the gold medal for it #cleansport.”
Bad History in Doping
While Chinese fans actively deny any doping charges or any comments regarding possible doping violations, the Chinese swimming team is known to have had a poor record of complying with doping regulations in the 1980s and 1990s. According to a 2012 report from The Sydney Morning Herald, a retired doctor from the Chinese swimming team admitted that the Chinese state once encouraged its athletes to use prohibited performance enhancing drugs to boost their performances in international competitions. Aside from swimming, Chinese national teams have also committed serious doping offences in other sporting events, including track and field and weightlifting.