GENEVA — One of China’s biggest Olympic stars will undergo a rare public hearing in a doping case on Friday with his 2020 Tokyo Games place at stake.
Three-time gold medallist 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 are expected at a Swiss lakeside hotel in the upscale, jazz festival city of Montreux. An online live stream will intrigue lawyers monitoring worldwide.
“It’s a pity we can’t sell tickets,” remarked John Coates, president of the CAS management board. “There’s massive interest in it.”
WHO IS SUN YANG?
His medal record ranks with swimming’s greats and his fame at home is as big as Yao Ming’s, the former NBA centre.
The 2-meter tall (6-foot-7) Sun is the first Chinese man to win Olympic gold in swimming, in 400 metres 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. Medallists Mack Horton of Australia and Duncan Scott of Britain refused to stand with him on the podium in South Korea.
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.
During the lead official’s telephone call to IDTM, Sun and his bodyguard went outside to break the secure cool box containing the vial.
An acrimonious visit ended at 3:15 a.m. with no credible prospect for analyzing samples.
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.
THE GOVERNING BODY
FINA — led by the same executive director, Cornel Marculescu, since before Sun was born — has at times seemed conflicted dealing with China’s star.
The 2014 ban was only belatedly confirmed. After winning Olympic gold at Rio in a hostile atmosphere, Sun was hugged poolside by Marculescu and later said he’d been watched over “like a grandfather.”
In 2017, FINA awarded Sun a prize for “Outstanding Contribution for Swimming Popularity in China.”
Asked about how this case played out, former WADA president Dick Pound told The Associated Press of his “complete lack of surprise.”
Pound, who swam for Canada at the 1960 Rome Olympics, said of FINA: “I’ve never been that impressed with their devotion to anti-doping.”
FINA did not respond to requests for comment about Friday’s hearing.
In 35 years and thousands of cases, only once has CAS opened its doors for a hearing.
It also involved a three-time Olympic champion swimmer who chose a public arena to answer allegations of tampering with a doping sample.
Michelle Smith de Bruin starred for Ireland at the 1996 Atlanta Games amid widespread suspicion about her improved performances. In January 1998, a urine sample taken from her was corrupted with a large amount of alcohol.
A CAS panel in 1999 upheld a four-year ban imposed by FINA.
The landmark case on Friday sees WADA represented by Colorado Springs legal firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, which worked on high-profile doping cases implicating Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones.
Sun has engaged law firms from Beijing, Geneva and London.
Each side selected one judge, and the CAS picked the panel president, Franco Frattini of Italy.
If the CAS panel upholds the appeal, Sun’s previous ban means he risks a heavier sanction for a second offence.
WADA wants a ban of two to eight years. It is unclear when it would start.
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.