‘You have lied to Chinese people’: Disgraced swimmer Sun Yang loses online fans after eight-year ban

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Sun Yang, China’s first swimmer to snatch Olympic gold, appears to be losing domestic support after he was given an eight-year ban for tampering with a drug test.

At the same time, some supporters of China’s most-successful swimmer are changing their tune in online apologies to his arch-rival, Australian swimmer Mack Horton.

Horton, an Olympic gold medallist, made headlines last year when he refused to stand on a podium next to Sun.

The Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) handed down the sentence against Sun in February, after an investigation found the three-time Olympic champion guilty of refusing to cooperate with sample collectors during a visit to his home in September 2018.

While Sun lodged an appeal against the ban on April 29 with Switzerland’s highest court, the swimmer is beginning to see his once-fervent domestic support wane.

The South China Morning Post and local media reported that Sun’s official page on the Chinese platform Weibo has shed about 360,000 followers over the past two months.

The embattled athlete — whose individual record is second only to that of Michael Phelps — still boasts some 33 million followers, but many Chinese social media users have piled on.

Another user said under the same post: “If Sun Yang is wrong, he must admit his wrongdoing and take responsibility for all the consequences, but there is currently no proof of him taking [banned] drugs.”

Chinese users purportedly apologise to Australia’s Horton

Australian swimmer Mack Horton (left) looks elsewhere while Sun Yang and Gabriele Detti hold up their world championship medals.

Australian swimmer Mack Horton (left) looks elsewhere while Sun Yang and Gabriele Detti hold up their world championship medals.

Mack Horton, left, staged a podium protest against Sun at last year’s FINA World Championships.(AP: Lee Jin-man)

Sun is the first man in swimming history to clinch Olympic and world championship gold medals at every freestyle distance between 200 metres and 1,500 metres, but questions about his record have been significantly amplified by Horton.

Horton labelled Sun a “drug cheat” at the Rio Games in 2016, referring to the Chinese athlete’s 2014 doping charge for a drug that has since been taken off the banned list.

In late April, Horton’s father, Andrew, told the Weekend Australian Magazine that their home was broken into a week after Mack’s comments.

He also said attacks on his business’s website stopped once traffic was stopped from China.

But it was three years later, at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, where tensions between two swimmers reached fever pitch: Horton refused to shake hands or share the podium with Sun, who had won gold in the 400-metre freestyle.

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Following Horton’s protest, Sun claimed the Australian had “disrespected China”.

At the time, Sun claimed that Horton had “disrespected China” with his protests, which sparked a torrent of abuse toward the Australian on Western and Chinese social media, in addition to threats made to Horton’s family in Melbourne.

They told the Weekend Australian their family home in Melbourne’s east had their plants and trees poisoned, while a “bucketload” of centimetre-thick glass shards were found in their backyard pool.

But in recent weeks, a trickle of comments of apology have appeared under Horton’s Instagram posts. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, however, they can be reached by some virtual private networks, VPNs.

One comment from a week ago read, “Apologies! Add oil” — a phrase used to express support — under an Instagram post from Horton where the Olympian is pictured shirtless.

Another, from March, read: “As a Chinese, on behalf myself, I want to say sorry to you. Hope you can forgive Chinese for what we had done to you. You are a man who is brave [and] strong. You truly are a warrior.”

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The ABC contacted Mack Horton but he did not reply to an interview request.

A hammer and a smartphone led to Sun’s demise

Sun’s entourage refused to hand over his blood vials following an incident where a member of the testing party, known as a doping control officer (DCA), was discovered taking non-consensual photos of the swimmer from behind.

Security footage from the clubhouse where the testing was carried out appears to confirm Sun’s statement that he asked to see the DCA’s mobile phone, then asked him to delete certain photos.

After the incident, Sun and his entourage claim they had asked for the accreditation of all of the three testing officers present, and found that only one of them had proper documentation.

CAS found that Sun offered to wait until a properly accredited team arrived, but the testing party did not take up the offer.

Sun Yang smiling and talking to a man in a suit while seated a the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Sun Yang smiling and talking to a man in a suit while seated a the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Sun Yang was given the ban by CAS in February this year.(Reuters: Denis Balibouse)

Then it all began to unravel for Sun. On his instructions, one of his entourage used a hammer to break the glass container that held his blood samples.

The blood samples themselves weren’t destroyed in the altercation. They were taken by Sun’s entourage.

The investigation also revealed that the testing officers handed over the containers “under pressure” from Sun prior to the incident.

Sun later ripped up the test’s paperwork in front of the officers present.

It is believed the blood samples in question remain in the possession of the swimmer’s doctor Ba Zhen, however, CAS said they could no longer be tested as the “chain of custody was broken”.

While a final decision is yet to be made over Sun’s fate, it appears that China’s court of public opinion is beginning to turn against one of the country’s most decorated athletes.

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