Sun Yang’s Eight-Year Ban – History repeats: Whiskey In The Jar To Hammer Horror


What a day! A truly significant one for swimming and anti-doping.

Swimming World’s coverage of Sun Yang & FINA Vs WADA At the Court of Arbitration for Sport

Commentary follows

On the way to my breaking the news that Michelle Smith de Bruin, the stunning improver of an Irish triple Olympic champion in 1996, was in trouble with anti-doping authorities, a kind and caring soul sent me a Shakespearean quote from Hamlet.

It might have been but wasn’t “To be or not to be“, though the Prince of Denmark had something to teach me about where to look and what to look for. Early 1998 – and it would not be long before I was able to shake hands with truth.

The rest is history – now repeated in so many ways this day:

I broke the story about Sun’s latest brush with anti-doping authorities. Like Smith de Bruin, he asked for a public hearing at CAS as part of the legal defence of the innocence he claimed; and like the Irish swimmer since turned barrister, Sun did not survive the Court of Arbitration process. Both swimmers went down for manipulation/tampering, Smith de Bruin because there was a sample to test; Sun because there was no sample to test.

There are other differences in the cases, of course; Smith had nowhere left to go and quit the sport; Sun has a Swiss Federal Tribunal at which he can make a last stand (Sun’s Chinese lawyers have confirmed that he will appeal within 30 days). Beyond that, he will either rise from the ashes or go down in history with an eternal stain on his character and career. As things stand, he will never be inducted into the International Swimming Hall for Fame.

There was the whiskey, too (yes, I was told, apparently it was possible to tell that it was Irish whiskey not whisky in the urine jar – and in enough concentration to have been fatal had it been ingested and passed not poured into the test flask).

No nightcap involved in the Chinese case, the place of sundowner in 2018 taken by a twice-banned doctor, various guardians on the line to testers, a mother and the security guard she called on to fetch the final blow: a hammer to nail, intentionally or not, a fateful note to WADA’s door reading “catch me if you can”.

It was as if the love and protection of FINA for Sun and his swim association in a country yielding some of the biggest sponsors the international federation had ever known had gone to all their heads. So much so, indeed, that even previous bad form from 2014 was not enough to wave a red flag in between their collective ears when it came to favouring four hours of acrimony, with three fairly powerful men warning a young, female anti-doping officer over a bit of paperwork and process a 12-year-old could follow without too many tantrums.

21 years on and another kind and caring soul sent me something that led me to a document far less prosaic than the plots crafted by the great Bard. It was an astonishing document, one in which a great many pages thundered like Lear:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulfurous and thought-executing fires,
5Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

And then the Sun came out, all clear, a slight slap on the wrist, pocket money docked and “off you swim now, you naughty little rascal”.

It just didn’t add up and if the maths was askew so was the English. The FINA Doping Panel, clever men and lawyers they surely must be, forgot to pick up a dictionary. Had they done so, they would have understood almost instantly that the thing the whole Sun case “hinged” on, as they put it, was actually unhinged.

Documentation could only be interpreted as plural, they ruled, overruling the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries and several others as they went. Documentation is both singular and plural. Hence one might arrive at a border and be asked “Do you have your documentation”. Upon handing over one’s one passport, one might hear one “thank you, that will do nicely”.

Yet there were three FINA lawyers arguing that all that crack winds and blow stuff they’d identified hung on a grammatical thread so fine that one might well have imagined it came from the same spool from which the Emperor’s Clothes were spun.

Today, the Court of Arbitration’s three senior judges cut to the chase: Sun was guilty of tampering, not necessarily because his was the hand that removed a signed-off blood sample from the chain of custody but because his name was on the paperwork and the relevant rule hands him responsibility for outcome of an anti-doping procedure during the entire time a testing session/visit is underway.

In Montreux last November, witnesses, including Sun, suggested that Ba Zhen, the twice WADA-penalised doctor, was the man who took the blood sample out of custody. It could not, therefore, be pinned on Sun.

Well, it was and an eight-year ban was the result. Sun has now felt the hammer blow of WADA’s authority, as has FINA, which coupled its wagon to the Chinese champion when it might have stepped back and let due process run its course in more independent hands.

On several levels, Sun is more victim than villain on the set of this saga if you consider the roles of the grown ups and institutions around him, the environment that shaped him into the athlete and the man he became. At Rome 2009 when he claimed his first big prize, bronze in the 1500m free podium  as a teenager, he was a mild-mannered prospect on his way to bigger things. By the time many of the bigger things unfolded, he sometimes came across as arrogant, aggressive, an athlete who appeared to have been told that he was a cut above the rest – and perhaps untouchable, too. So, who are the Pygmalion characters on the set?

The verdict asks us to ask: Who Else Should Feel the Hammer Blow?

  • Dr Ba Zhen, twice banned and having removed the blood vial from the chain of custody?
  • Those who allow an anti-doping system to prevail without change when a twice-banned doctor can enter a doping control room at all?
  • Those who don’t understand the difference between a hard and fast rule and a guideline?
  • Dr. Han Zhaoqi, head of the Zhejiang Anti-Doping Centre, dispensing advice that includes telling Dr Ba, one of his underlings at the hospital he’s a senior figure at, to basically ignore the standard protocol of registering concerns on the antipode-doping form in favour of stopping the test session?
  • FINA’s leadership for jumping the wrong way when the right way was to understand what it means to be an even-handed regulator that understands the meaning of Fair Play, not for the one but all?

The list is longer still.

The 2016 Rio Olympic deck hug for Sun Yang from FINA director Cornel Marculescu after the 200m freestyle final had the champion of China and FINA explaining to the world media how the international federation’s top-paid employee was like a grandfather to him. Mr. Marculescu was a great friend of Chinese swimming, he said.

All of that just 18 years after a China Crisis so big in swimming that it would surely have been impossible to get it wrong beyond that point, more than 60 positives among Chinese teenagers and 13 vials of hGh in the kit of Yuan Yuan, a 16-year-old picked out by sniffer dogs at Sydney Airport, a game changer.

Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith Photo Courtesy: Tim Morse 1996

All of that those same 18 years beyond Michelle Smith de Bruin hearing a knock at her door in Ireland as testers Al and Kay Guy came calling  in the same week that Yuan Yuan was met at Perth airport by a police escort on her way to World titles with the rest of team China in Western Australia.

I heard sometime later that Marculescu had sent a reprimand to Prof. Malcolm Cameron, the famous pathologist on the FINA Medical Commission. The director suspected that he had picked a phone up and spilled the beans to journalists, or, rather, Craig Lord, since his name was on the story. Prof. Cameron had done no such thing.

But “Taffy” was indeed the man who sent the Guys in because he thought ahead: if Smith was not at World titles on the other side of the world, this might be a good time to go and pay her a visit.

Taffy was the man who sent the testers to keep the China team arriving for the Asian Games in Hiroshima in the wake of the 1994 World Championships in Rome at which the women’s squad had turned up as GDR Mark II. In Rome they thumped their rivals into submission across the board. The tests in Hiroshima landed 11 positives from one flight, seven of them members of the Rome 1994 swim team.

The warning had been given. And yet in 1998, FINA’s warning went, erroneously, to Prof Cameron, just about the greatest weapon an international federation could have had as the guardian of clean sport.

In 1998, Marculescu received news of Yuan Yuan’s arrest from journalists in Perth with the words: “It’s a balloon – you’re going to bring your own house down”. He was reminded that FINA was not our house but his.

It was surely a game changer, all of it.

But no, it didn’t turn out like that, for in every passing year since, mistakes that suggest history’s lessons have been wilfully ignored have played out again and again, with Russia, with China, with any swimmer from any nation paying into FINA coffers handled with kid gloves not the hammer felt by others. The history of cases, which are no longer kept in the public domain by FINA on grounds that the culprits have a right to privacy beyond serving their suspensions, is littered with inconsistencies in which the same offence is treated to different penalties, sometimes gapingly so.

With the verdict today comes criticism of the anti-doping system and how unfair it is to Sun. Accusations stretch to racism as we’ve seen in our own comments section.

All such things are a masquerade. Those who are concerned about WADA and CAS and the anti-doping system are right to be concerned but not if their fight rests on saving Sun and Co.

The question is not ‘have we been unfair to Sun’ but ‘what the hell are you doing about Dr Ba and Co?

Go further, ask FINA what it was thinking during those 20 or so years when it never once questioned the way IDTM, the Sweden-based testing agency, conducted its business and testing teams, never once recommended nor demanded changes and improvements; yet there it’s lawyers were in Montreux pressing IDTM for answers on the very procedures it had agreed to, by default or otherwise, as part of its out-of-competition testing contract.

The arrival of the International Swimming League put the heat on FINA to change last year and the leading domestic federations have sat back and hoped rather than actively pressed for change within the organisation that is the sum of all of them and cannot operate without them.

While FINA has had to tweak things a touch, it remains the same organisation and culture in heart and soul; the same organisation still fighting legal action aimed at ending its monopoly; the same organisation that defended a rogue Chinese swimming organisation and culture through the 1990s; the same organisation that mortally failed Fran Crippen and his family; the same organisation that gave its top honour to Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Russian doping crisis; the same organisation that said Facilities Rules (including what constitutes a 50m pool, a starting block and so forth) don’t count when a world record is set; the same organisation that has no register of interests nor open expenses system for the ‘volunteers’ running the show that is accessible for all its stakeholders to see; the same organisation that has allowed leading officials to remain at its top table even while cited as co-conspirators or named as being under investigation for criminal activities; the same organisation that ignored calls for review and reform from shoals of major stakeholders in the sport.

FINA is an organisation in need of root-to-branch review and reform. National federations know it but remain far more complicit than they should be.

Twenty two years ago, coaches and athletes flowed past the media complaining about unfairness and FINA for failing to act on their behalf. They are still flowing past, with similar complaints and sighs in a sport led yet by men who were around when Dr Lothar Kipke was being honoured as a GDR medical man. Honoured for his services to swimming even as teenage girls were being abused behind a closed Wall. As stated many times before: Kipke has his FINA Pin award yet despite a criminal conviction handed to him 20 years ago for the abuse of underage athletes he doped. 20 years: no action.

On the sidelines of the show is Sun, a star now fallen. He has been in the hands of “the system” for at least 20 years from childhood to a 28-year-old adult who may be regarded as both victim and product of that system, his home environment and, in the past decade, the home-from-home he has found at FINA HQ.


Stand-off: Britain’s Duncan Scott, right, refuses to pose with Sun Yang, flanked by Katsuhiro Matsumoto, left, and Martin Malyutin, after the 200m free medals ceremony – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Those who think that last reference goes too far should know this: when Sun stepped out of the lights a few moments after having shouted in Duncan Scott‘s face at the World Championships under a giant banner of the event motto “Dive Into Peace” in Gwangju, FINA got to work. It took nine minutes for British Swimming to receive the warning handed down to Scott for his podium protest.

It took 2 minutes to get Sun into a FINA limousine, drive him back to the official FINA hotel where he was being housed: his own ‘warning’ came with another FINA hug of sorts, as a member of the ‘family’. The event motto might better have read “Pride, Prejudice and Partiality”. At the closing press conference, Marculescu singled Horton and Scott out for criticism without mentioning the third man warned, Sun.

None of any of that escaped the swimmers’ notice, which is why we find in our coverage the tip of an iceberg of complaints from the world’s leading swimmers, their coaches, parents, communities and the wider world of programs, clubs and fans remote from the politics that prevail at the helm of the sport.

This was a good day for swimming, a good day for clean sport and anti-doping; Sun, the champion of a system and culture that even China team-mates, the Chinese media has reported, have been uncomfortable with, has gone down.

What remains of this day, however, is that, yet again, the whole focus is on the swimmer, the one athlete, when quite clearly, many around him ought to be called to account.

The Sun has set on a career after a long year at the end of a troubling chapter of swimming history. There is a feeling that the matter has been put to bed on the way to a Midsummer Night’s Dream of viruses dying and Games Olympic unfolding without a (particular) shadow of doubt.

“And sleep, that sometime shuts up sorrow’s eye, Steal me awhile from mine own company.”

FINA’s leadership might well be among those who understand Shakespeare’s fine expression but it’s not they I wish restful sleep for when they ought to be wide awake contemplating the lessons of 1998, February 28, 2020, and many other moments in between.

No. Rather, let this night into a new weekend be peaceful for all those kind and caring souls who’ve laid awake on many other nights thinking about the sport that their’s could be and hoping not to see something rotten in the state of swimming being propagated and propped up by that very state.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x