Sun Yang Verdict: Ryan Cochrane And Chad Le Clos On The Lasting Pain Of Loss

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No going back on history as CAS rule that Sun will keep all his prizes despite an eight-year ban likely top end his career - image of Ryan Cochrane - Photo Courtesy: Vaughn Ridley/Swimming Canada

Commentary – The Athlete Voice

The eight-year ban imposed Friday on Sun Yang came with a downside for rivals who might have thought they would now get what they consider just rewards: they won’t.

In its ruling, CAS listed three points that led to a decision that the “ban starts this day and there’ll be no retrospective action and medals redistribution”: Sun Yang will keep all the prizes he ever claimed. CAS stated:

Considering 1) that FINA refrained from seeking the imposition of a provisional suspension on the Athlete when charging him with an anti-doping rule violation, 2) that doping tests performed on the Athlete shortly before and after the aborted doping control in September 2018 were negative, and 3) that in the absence of any evidence that the Athlete may have engaged in doping activity since 4 September 2018, including on the occasion of the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea in July 2019, the results achieved by the Athlete in the period prior to the CAS award being issued should not be disqualified.

That brings into sharp focus all the rivals that Sun has raced and beaten down the years, rivals who ended or will end their careers feeling denied by factors that they feel should not have denied them.

Here are two examples of how FINA and the anti-doping system has let athletes with a clean record down through inaction, perceived (and real) leniency on certain matters and for some among those the international federation calls ‘stars’ when acting out the federation’s primary role as listed in its Constitution: “To promote … the development of Aquatics in all possible regards throughout the World”.

The second objective of the constitution is “to provide fair and drug-free sport”.

That role includes being a signatory to the WADA Code, which is replicated in FINA rules. Interpretation of FINA rules has provided enough bones of contention down the years to feed several packs of ravenous wolves, key figures in the sport have suggested in one choice of words or another.

In the latest case, the first two objectives of the FINA Constitution have clashed like Titans in a storm of questionable practices. FINA, it might well be said, simply abandoned its role as anti-doping guardian acting with fairness and neutrality for all in mind in favour of actively working against WADA in support of Sun.

Here is how that plays out in the lives of athletes who have not been called on to take the stand:

Ryan Cochrane And Chad Le Clos On What Might Have Been

Back in 2015, when Liz Byrnes interviewed Ryan Cochrane, the Canadian distance ace echoed a conversation he’d had with this author at the end of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow several months earlier, while adding a note of genuine frustration and, for the mild-mannered and pleasant Cochrane, rare anger.

In November last year in the wake of the Sun Yang hearing in Montreux, Chad Le Clos also spelled out what it means to be beaten by doubt a few lanes across the Olympic pool.

The Cloud Over Cochrane Called Sun Yang

Sun Yang [Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer]

Ryan Cochrane, of Canada, finished second behind Sun on more than one occasion: in the 1,500 at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 World Championships as well as being runner-up in both the 800m and 1,500m at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai.

Beyond all of that, in 2014, Sun tested positive for a heart booster that had been added to the list of banned substances that year. Sun was given a retrospective three-month ban when his case was revealed six months after the positive test and two months beyond winning three golds at the Asian Games while knowing he had a doping case pending. As such, Sun never actually served a suspension, FINA seemingly happy to hand down such leniency even as large numbers of its stakeholders asked “What!? How!?”.

In attempting to defend himself, Sun revealed that he had had the same heart condition and taken the medicine that caused his fall from grace for “several” years, through his international career, in fact.

Cochrane, like fellow Canadians Nancy Garapick, Wendy Hogg and Cheryl Gibson, respectively 3rd, 4th and 5th in the Olympic 100m backstroke final in which two GDR swimmers made the podium in 1976, was left forever wondering what might have been.

Diplomatic in his response to the Sun case at a time when little information had reached the world, Cochrane called for transparency when he spoke to SwimVortex in December 2014:

“I just don’t know enough about it (Sun). I think there has to be a level of honesty in the process so whatever the case may be it has to be visible throughout from start to finish of what happened and I think that is the best we can hope for as athletes going forward.”

There was a need for parity of approach, he suggested. “It doesn’t make sense that certain countries have different rules and regulations to other countries. It needs to be externally regulated so whatever the case may be it’s an even playing field,” said Cochrane.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Was he philosophical about having to race in an environment called into question by doping cases? “Whatever goes on around me it’s been so many years and I always focus on what I do.”

“I train every day to be the best athlete I can be, I ensure my supplements and everything I take is as clean as possible. As athletes we always focus on the next thing so I don’t think any athlete really looks back too much. It’s always what are we doing this week what are we doing next week, next year.

“Maybe when I’m done I’ll have a more philosophical view on my whole swimming career and the entire situation around it. At the time there are too many things coming up in the near future, it’s hard to look back.”

Cochrane is done. He left the sport officially in 2017. Two years on, as Sun awaited a verdict in his case, Cochrane reflected from a greater distance when he told the Times Colonist of Canada, for an article that ran with the hopeful headline: “Victoria’s Ryan Cochrane could swim away with Olympic gold after all”:

“Sun has been a polarizing character for almost a decade now, and with that comes many fans, and just as many critics. As an athlete you are always trying to control every aspect of your life, and this scenario is something that makes me uncomfortable to think about. I would like to believe I swam my best race, against the best and clean athletes in the world. But anything beyond that is completely out of my control.”

He spoke in a year that saw  Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard awarded the London 2012 Olympic gold medal in the women’s 63-kilo class after initially winning the bronze. Blood samples were re-tested and original gold medallist Maiya Maneza of Kazakhstan and silver medallist Svetlana Tsarukaeva of Russia were stripped of their medals.

Then there was bronze-medallist Beckie Scott, from WADA athletes’ chair, who was retroactively awarded 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics gold, several years later, in women’s 5K-pursuit cross-country skiing after “champion” Olga Danilova and “silver medallist” Larissa Lazutina, both of Russia, were disqualified for doping.

The Olympic Movement has launched “Take the Podium” for those athletes deprived of the moment by rivals finishing ahead of them but subsequently found to have cheated. The program grants podium ceremonies to those being moved into or further up the podium. However, the move does not stretch back in time to right the tidal wave of wrongs in sports, such as swimming during the days of the GDR.

Cochrane told the Colonist:

“It’s great to see athletes’ voices being taken seriously and see so many athletes advocating for issues that are important to them. Now, more than ever, it’s essential that athletes use their status to effect change in a positive manner.”

On a Take-The-Podium style moment remote from the time and place of the race and drama of the hour, he added:

“For those athletes who have been awarded medals at a later date, they were robbed of a very special moment that they dreamed about their entire athletic lives. That said, I would imagine being able to share that moment with friends, family, and the community which supported you, would be the most ideal considering the circumstances.”

Cochrane never will experience what a lot off people tuning in to the Sun Yang verdict today felt might have been in other circumstances.

On Coping With Hard Knocks

An athlete has to be able to compartmentalise. And for Cochrane there has been reason to exercise objectivity. Most notably at the 2012 Olympics where he finished ninth in the 400m heats.

However, the disqualification of Park Tae-Hwan, the Korean who would also later test positive for doping,  elevated him into the final before the South Korean was reinstated and Cochrane locked out.

Ryan Cochrane of Canada [Photo: Ian MacNicol]

“When I finished ninth in the 400m in Beijing it was my best time by three seconds and I was just out-touched,” Cochrane told SwimVortex.

“When I watched the final it was kind of painful but at the same time I knew I’d done a pretty awesome swim for myself at the time so I could get past that. In London it was more of the back and forth of the disqualification of being in and being out.”

“It just wasn’t fast enough so that is one thing…I have to push the event. As much as that hurts that’s what you have to do. I think it’s another one of those things I put on the backburner because there is nothing after the fact, there is nothing you can do.”

Ryan Cochrane – by Patrick B. Kraemer

“It could easily drive you crazy if you thought about it too much so I always focus on the next thing, focus on the next race, thankfully I had multiple races so it gave me another chance for redemption.”

He added back in 2014: “You have to learn from those experiences. If you focus on every single thing you did wrong I think you would never become a better athlete and you would never get faster. I have done a lot of things wrong.

I’ve had a lot of second places and third places and a lot of ninth places but I hope year after year to continue whether it’s to better my time or better my placing, I want to leave some kind of mark on the sport.”

Chad Le Clos & Sarah Sjöström On Why They Favoured A Lifetime Ban

Chad le Clos and Sarah Sjostrom, the top two scorers at the International Swimming League‘s European Derby in London in November, believed that Sun Yang should be banned for life when they spoke to Swimming World last year. They have also called on FINA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to “get tougher” on doping.

The Energy Standard Pro-teammates would like to see first-time, instant lifetime bans for higher-category offences in general, believing too many responses to cheating too lenient. The League has a no-tolerance stance on doping and bars any who fall foul of the WADA Code.

Le Clos and Sjöström also urged FINA to embrace the International Olympic Committee’s latest swing by staging podium ceremonies for those denied the moment of celebration by those who subsequently proven to have cheated.

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Sarah Sjostrom – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Both swimmers believe that Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, awaiting the judgement of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) over an acrimonious encounter with testers last year, should be banned for life for “unacceptable” behaviour. Le Clos described the events as “something we would never get away with and something that was totally unnecessary and should never have happened”.

Now we have a verdict: eight years – and, if that survives appeal, likely gone for life. Sun’s results, however, will remain forever.

Sun claimed last last year that he did what he did in September 2018 because he was an “athletes’ champion” standing up for the rights of his fellow sportsmen and women. That claim was “extremely ironic” and “an absolute joke”, said Adam Peaty, given that Sun tested positive for a banned substance in 2014. In 2018, he could have “followed protocol, registered his objections but gone ahead with producing samples in the usual way, like we all have to”, Peaty suggested.

Le Clos, who finished second to Sun in the 200m freestyle at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and wants “my gold medal”, echoed Peaty’s view when he told Swimming World:

“To put it bluntly it’s a joke. Look, it’s simple: ‘guys, you can come and take my blood, right; I have nothing to hide’. Take it!. What you gonna do with it? You can make another Chad, I don’t care, do what you want with it, whatever. I have nothing to hide. You can keep my blood for 10, 100 years, I have nothing to hide.”

“If he (Sun) was so skeptical of someone who legally wasn’t allowed to take his blood, why would he smash it [the container]? It’s just the dumbest thing. He knew there would be repercussions. It’s the dumbest excuse I’ve ever heard in my life. When I hear, ‘could be two years, could be four or eight’, it’s like no, man, it should be life for something like that after he already got caught’.”

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Chad le Clos – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Le Clos explained how he had behaved when he had serious concerns about a testing mission:

“If you have a problem, you just write it down. I remember the one time in South Africa, this guy took three attempts to try to get my blood … and I have huge veins … but he was an absolute amateur and was struggling to do it. He was a nice guy but [before] he had a fourth go, I said ‘look, my friend, we’re going to go to the hospital all together now because you don’t know what you’re doing’. I said to him ‘it’s no problem, you’re a nice guy but you can’t keep doing it like that. We’ll get a nurse to do it in the hospital’. I wrote that down on the form, to say ‘we asked a nurse at the hospital to do it because the officer didn’t know what he was doing’.”

That, said Le Clos, was the professional approach: it was what Sun should have done on September 4, 2018. The 200m butterfly Olympic champion of 2012 added: “What Sun Yang did is an absolute joke. He got caught in 2014 and he’s been cheating for a long time. It should be a lifetime ban. You’ve cheated. You’ve carried the ‘benefits’ forever.”

In general, Le Clos believed, “these guys are not cheating at the Olympics or the World Champs: they’re clean there but test them six weeks before and it might be a different story. They’re hiding in the mountains and you can’t get hold of them.”

Sun needed to hand back ill-gotten gains, Le Clos opined: “He took away my gold medal in Rio. There are guys working hard to scrape into finals over 200, 400, 1500 – but they know they’re not going to beat him because he’s juiced up.” All responsibly for anti-doping needed to “get tougher on doping cheats.”

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Sarah Sjostrom – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Sjostrom agreed with Le Clos’ call for lifetime bans in circumstances that “deserve no second chance”. She said:

“I think, as Chad said, it should be a lifetime ban, especially when something happens for the second time. Everyone needs a second chance for cases where there was doubt or a mistake was made [like a] cough remedy. That’s different for things like EPO and so on: they must know what they are doing. There should be no excuses.”

Le Clos also described as ‘ridiculous’ the story of how Korea’s Park Tae Hwan tested positive in 2015, after he attended a hospital and received an injection that contained testosterone.

Sun, Park, Yuliya Efimova were among swimmers who raced at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games after they had return from suspensions for doping offences.

Changing The Narrative Of A Swimmer’s Story and Status

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Chad Le Clos – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Le Clos pointed to his 9 golds and 2 silvers in global short-course championships, the two silvers behind swimmers who had served doping bans. At the Olympic Games, his silver in the 200m freestyle was claimed as the first man home with a clean record behind Sun.

He wanted his record to show the “true result”, with two gold and two silver medals at the Olympic Games of 2012 and 2016.

“No African has ever done what I’ve done – and it should be 2 gold, 2 silver heading into my third Olympics. Its not even the financial side of things; it’s about the legacy.”

Both Le Clos and Sjostrom urged FINA to embrace the IOC’s Take The Podium project, in which ceremonies are staged for athletes deprived of their moment by those who cheated.

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What suited the GDR – and how Brigitte Berendonk told the story of systematic doping and State Research Plan 14.25 – Main Photo Courtesy: NT Archive/Craig Lord

FINA is likely to view that request with great caution: the federation, in common with any of its members, turned a blind eye to a vast library of evidence showing how the German Democratic Republic had doped some 10,000 athletes over two decades, swimming a sport more affected than most. Not a single record of result has even been changed or even considered for change.

Such things have left people nursing the scars of injustice throughout their lives, Le Clos suggested. He reached for the difference in 2012 and 2016 in his own story, saying:

“Look at South Africa’s Rugby World Cup winners: they had parades, were treated like heroes and quite right, too. That was like London 2012 for me. With silver, it wasn’t like that in 2016: in fact there was none of that at all. If I’d have lost to James Guy or someone like that, fair enough but to lose to a proven cheat makes it hard to take. That isn’t hearsay we’re talking about. He (Sun) had tested positive. We had no trust in him standing on his blocks clean.”

In 2014, Swimming World joint SwimVortex in calling for reconciliation ceremonies for the victims of GDR doping and those cheated out of just rewards as well as the removal of FINA prizes given to officials and doctors who were subsequently handed criminal convictions for their role in systematic doping.

The call was considered by a FINA media commission, which unanimously voted to have FINA’s ruling Bureau consider the case for addressing the issues and staging Take The Podium ceremonies. To this day, there has been no response from FINA’s leadership.

Meanwhile, le Clos be wants “my gold medal” from Rio, even though he is unlikely ever to see it. Le Clos explained why not was important to him, saying:

“If I break my leg and I can’t swim again I want my record to say, ‘Two individual golds, two individual silvers.’ Because that’s what it should be.”

Speaking to reporters in Italy last weekend, he said: “I have nothing against anybody. It’s not personal. It’s just how the world should be. If you cheat or if you do something wrong, like if you false start, you get disqualified. It’s simple as that.”

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13 comments

  1. Howard Hay

    He’s an unrepentant and an arrogant cheat.

  2. Frank Arendt

    Actually Nancy Garapick finished third at the olympics in Montreal!

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Indeed, 3rd, 4th, 5th… thanks for the spot among a great many words 🙂

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Indeed, 3rd, 4th, 5th… thanks for the spot among a great many words this day 🙂

    • avatar
      Cam Rothery

      Yes, Nancy Garapick came third. However, she was beaten by TW0 drugged-up East Germans: Ulrike Richter and Birgit Treiber. So take the drug cheats out of the results, and Garapick would have celebrated – along with the whole country – the gold medal in the 100 back. She, along with all the other athletes who competed clean, should be recognized. To do so not only celebrates the real winners, it also acts as reinforcement against those who are considering cheating. We will find out, we will take your ill-gotten gains away in a public ceremony – and award them to those who played fair.

      • avatar
        Cam Rothery

        AND lets not forget that Nancy would have ALSO won GOLD in the 200 backstroke were it not for the same two drug cheat East Germans. She is one among many who were denied – and yet go unrecognized. How can this be?

      • avatar
        Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

        Yes, Cam, she would have had a great shot at both back titles… imagine how that changes a life… 🙁

      • avatar
        Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

        Indeed.

  3. Grant Simpson

    This makes it is clear to me that FINA and all of it’s fat cats needs to be replaced by a truely fair minded independent governing body or international swimming will fall by the wayside.

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