The Sun Yang-Mack Horton-FINA affair: Don’t stare too long at the Sun (sorry…)

24 Jul 2019 Posted by

OK, I’ll try to be brief, but I need to cover important context, so may fail…

But I have to share some thoughts on this controversy that at first glance looks to be between swimmers – Sun Yang the common denominator, Mack Horton the first protagonist, Duncan Scott the latest. However, if you go a little deeper, the two incidents ask some very important questions about anti-doping, bans, trust and confidence, and the integrity of the whole system. So that’s what I want to focus on, but first, you need to know the backstory and context.

The latest incident is below. It happened yesterday, when Sun, gold medalist, and Scott, bronze medalist in the 200m Freestyle at the World Championships, had an exchange on the podium during the medal ceremony. Well, strictly speaking, Sun screamed and Scott stayed silent, but refused any interaction, including the obligatory and customary handshake.

Here you see that prior to the medals being given out, Sun leans over to one of the bronze medalist for a handshake (they gave two bronze – there was a dead heat), and then instead of even trying to shake Scott’s hand, just screams at him. There must have been some kind of altercation prior to coming out for this, because Sun Yang knew to not even reach over and try:

Then after the medals are awarded and the anthem played, Scott refuses to mount the top step of the podium for the photograph, and when they walk off and Sun has another go at Scott, then gets into his face at one point saying something like “You are a loser, I am winning”, and off they go.

Quite remarkable scenes, not typical in your sanitized & hyper-managed world of sport’s medal ceremonies, and unusual only because of the non-conformity. Both men received warnings from FINA, I suppose Scott’s is for showing disrespect to the official process and ceremony, and Sun Yang for his outburst before and after the medals were given out.

This was, as mentioned, the second such incident of the World Champs – only a few days earlier, Mack Horton of Australia, had refused to stand up on the podium at all after winning silver behind Sun Yang in the 400m freestyle. Their history goes back a fair way, which brings us to the ‘why’ of all this?

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The hammer and the blood sample

The root of this, of course, is doping. Or rather, to be precise (and precision matters, as I wish to explain), the perception of doping. By Sun Yang, again. The reason it’s hot right now is because of a leaked FINA report earlier this year that revealed that last September, Sun Yang, already a controversial figure in doping, had destroyed his own blood samples during a doping collection in China. So out came a hammer, and that was that – no samples to test.

Now, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of anti-doping will appreciate the gravity of this offence. An athlete can’t refuse a test, unless there are exceptional circumstances. They certainly can’t or shouldn’t destroy their samples without mighty good reason.

On face value, these were not exceptional circumstances (though as we’ll see in the detail, there’s some grey area). I say that because the doping officials showed up at the designated spot at the time Sun Yang at given them – every elite athlete has to declare a time and place that they’ll be available for testing for at least one hour every day. Sun Yang’s window was between 10pm and 11pm on 4 September.

The officials showed up at around 11pm, but Sun Yang was not there. He arrived a while later, and then went to a place to provide the blood samples. This is where it gets murkier. I don’t want to get massively bogged down in the detail of the case, though it’s actually really important because it illustrates some really crucial concepts to how we evaluate what has happened in South Korea this week.

But basically, the summary is this: Sun Yang doesn’t accept the accreditation of two of the three officials. He contests that the samples are being improperly collected. He challenges the conduct of the Doping Control Assistant as highly improper. They deny this, and proceed to get a blood sample, but not a urine sample (there’s nobody Sun Yang trusts to chaperone him and see it being provided). Over the course of about four hours, various people get called and consulted – doctors, lawyers, heads of Federations, the head of the IDTM, the organization that oversees the anti-doping.

None of this is enough to provide reassurances, and eventually, by about 3am the next morning, they reach a point of no return where Sun Yang’s entourage apparently calls for a hammer because they do not want the blood samples provided to leave the premises. The DCO and head of IDTM are both apparently trying to make it very clear what this would mean, and the consequences should Sun Yang not comply.

At 3.15am, hammer meets glass, samples are destroyed, and we head to a Doping Panel run by FINA. Again, I don’t want to get bogged down in the weeds of the legal decision that was made by the FINA Doping Panel in the case, you can read the 59 pages if you wish, other than to say that it’s a mess of technicalities and confusion around what constitutes proper accreditation, and FINA’s belief that the Doping Officers had it, Sun Yang didn’t.

Ultimately, the Doping Panel finds that the collection process was “not properly commenced”, “the blood collected was not properly authorized and thus was not properly a sample”, and that the conduct of the DCA was highly inappropriate.

Somewhat bizarrely, the Panel also concludes that the repeated warnings by the DCO to Sun Yang that destroying or not providing the samples would lead to consequences “did not get through”. The Doping Panel sides with the athlete who says that he was never told what consequences would apply for non-compliance. That strikes me as amazing, because this is not some uninformed newbie who might not understand how anti-doping works, and it seems like in the course of 4 hours, someone would have laid out the scenarios if the blood samples were not released or were destroyed. However, the DCO apparently never provides an official Refusal Form that states, in black and white, what the athlete is inviting with their refusal. This is another big mistake on the part of the collection team – they didn’t ever achieve ‘crystal clear’ communication , or what the Panel calls “a bang”, about what Sun Yang was actually inviting or doing through his refusal to release the samples to them, let alone take a hammer to them.

In any event, all of this adds up to sufficient technicalities that the final decision is that Sun Yang is not guilty of a doping violation, though they do call him “foolish” for risking his career on his belief that the accreditation was not proper. They warn him (sternly) that it’s better to provide the sample under protest than to destroy it (or refuse it), and dismiss many of his other claims. But it’s not enough to issue a sanction, so he is declared not guilty, and off we go, to South Korea.

And that brings us to 2019 World Championships. Because rather than suspend Sun Yang pending the outcome of a WADA appeal process after FINA offered a stern rebuke, Sun is swimming, and winning golds, in the pool in South Korea. And that triggers athlete’s anger, for understandable reasons.

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Staring at the Sun, and blinded to all else

Now, there’s a lot of detail above, and trust me, I’ve given you a very brief summary of a clearly chaotic evening. Other swimmers are now faced with a perception issue here – there is clearly no trust in Sun Yang. Or FINA. After all, he served a three month ‘secretive’ ban a few years back for what he argued was necessary heart medication, in similarly murky circumstances. That got him a reduced ban, which means this is a second perceived ‘leniency’ for the same athlete, and he is, in the eyes of many swimmers, now a two-time drug cheat (and the appeal process may yet confirm that).

For many of them, HE is the problem. And so when he is on the podium, with a medal that means they’re getting a medal one degree less valuable than they think their performance deserved, it is understandable that they feel disgruntled. So they express their right to protest. I have no problem with this. I know that Richard Ings, former head of the Australia Anti-Doping Agency, has been a critic of the athletes, calling for “innocent until proven guilty” attitudes and punishment for those protests. And that’s certainly true in terms of official sanction of the athlete, but I don’t begrudge other athletes the right to express their unhappiness in protest.

However, what I think should be applauded is a protest against a system that has failed the athletes. Not against Sun himself. Yeah, I get it – you need a bad guy, and who better than the guy who’s done some time, who displays what is a shitty attitude, seems aggressive and surly? Perfect villain, you couldn’t script a better one. He screams at people who remain calm, he taunts people from the winner’s position. What a douche.

So then we can even call his anger “roid rage”, a leap of faith for sure, but further confirmation of how dirty he is (and how clean we are, by extension), and lump testosterone use in there among his transgression (as many have done, including some high profile people on twitter). After all, he must surely also be on the ‘roids, right? Guilty as hell.

This is not right. And no, I’m not defending the guy to the hilt here – he should not be in the pool in Korea. But those protests should not be directed at HIM. They should be directed at the system that couldn’t get the anti-doping accreditation right. That couldn’t create that “bang” moment that made him realize what it would mean to destroy the samples, but still do it. That couldn’t turn his bad behaviour into a rule violation, because of self-inflicted technicalities.

Their protest might be at a system that many onlookers have assessed and realized is wanting, and failing to deliver clean swimming, for reasons ranging from lack of testing to lack of forceful sanction. Even more broadly, athletes might choose to protest a general failure of anti-doping in sport.

So if a swimmer wants to protest, go for it, and well done for finally standing up for clean sport. I applaud that, and I wish it happened more often, not only when the “different” bloke is standing there winning the medals.

But if you’re standing up specifically to Sun Yang, the ONLY guy who in your mind violates your desire for clean sport, then I think you need to hit the pause button and understand that just because you know about a hammer and a blood vial at 03.15am on September 5, doesn’t mean you’re making things better when you direct your wrath at that one person. Stare too long at the Sun, and you’ll see little else you should be seeing.

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“Us vs Them”, naive trust, and the danger of rationalization

What this has created is huge, typical polarization. Even after posting those videos yesterday, in which I gave no opinion on who is right or wrong on the matter, my Twitter timeline turned into a kind of ‘new Cold war nastiness’ tennis match between pro-Sun and pro-Scott voices. This is, apparently, a drop in the ocean compared to what Mack Horton and Duncan Scott are no doubt getting on social media.

Point is, this is ugly. It’s harsh. But it’s also inevitable. Anti-doping has reached a point where there is so little trust in the process that even a considered legal process that gives two parties the right to state their case won’t reassure people. Sun is guilty, in their minds, of multiple doping offences. There may also be other reasons for this certainty – I’ve long felt that the athletes know who is doping and who is not, and Sun is emblematic of the mistrust. That first ban, and now this, probably just pour petrol on a fire that to many already existed.

But here’s the problem I have with this, and forgive the hypothetical I have to make to lead me to a point. If Sun Yang was an American swimmer, would the Australians and British stay off that podium? And vice-versa? If he was not so easy to villainize as a product of a system that is so easy to mistrust (remember turtle blood?), a clandestine system that we know has state run properties like the other “evil doers Russia”, would it be as easy to leap to accusations of “drug cheat”, to say that he should be banned for life?

If he was a media darling, a “Sir” who does nifty victory celebrations and victory laps with kids, who Instagrams happy family pictures, appears on TV reality shows, who does charity events, who sells us our breakfast cereals and endorses our cars (in English!), who appears on our TVs in talkshows and cameo appearances, would we evaluate him by the same standards, even if there’s as much (if different) reason to doubt?

I suspect not. And I don’t mean this to either defend Sun Yang, or to play whataboutery. On the first issue, destroying your samples with a hammer after you’ve been around the scene for two Olympic cycles is tremendously stupid, and worse, reveals a mindset and disrespect about doping. In fact, if there’s a louder way to scream “My blood is dodgy”, I don’t know what it might be.

But the problem is, you can’t know that for sure. He may genuinely feel that people are out to get him, a level of paranoia that would lead to destroying possibly clean samples. But his failure to comply with the normal process for refusing a sample should at least mean he’s not swimming in the pool in Korea, in my opinion.

On the second issue, the fact that other swimmers are likely doping just as much, if not more, but haven’t been caught, should be obvious to anyone except those who still believe in the purity of anti-doping. As I’ve discovered, it’s difficult to argue with people who believe in a simple world where a sample that is negative places you in the group of “clean athletes”, while a positive sample marks you out as a dirty one.

“Was he found guilty?”, they’ll argue when you bring up high profile cases of doping violations that were eventually set aside or reduced for whatever reason. And if the answer is “no, not officially”, they will say “Aha, so how dare you conflate Athlete X with that lying, cheating bastard Sun Yang”. Well, my friends, if you read the FINA doping report, you will see, unequivocally, that Sun Yang was also found not guilty. How does it feel to be in a prison of your own parochial making?

And this is the problem. It happened in 2016 when the Russians were in the dock. They are evil, we are good. It happens about Kenyans and Ethiopians – “They have no testing, they hide away and dope to win, but never get tested”. But not “our runners” who travel there to train. That’s just for altitude and solitude. Doping must be genetic, only.

And then it played out very amusingly in the Tour last week too. A French guy unexpectedly makes it to the top of a tough climb after beating your darling in a time-trial, both surprising results, and so he must be dirty – “extraordinary transformation for a one-day racer, impossible, doper!”. Even though those two performances and his transformation and improvement are not even in the top 10 of extra-ordinary performances and transformations that you’ve been cheering wholeheartedly since 2011″.

How do the same facts, or actually, an even more extreme set of the same facts, lead to totally different conclusions, if not for reasons of wilful blindness? It’s quite extraordinary. And I worry that the focus on Sun is doing the same.

To think of anti-doping in term of “innocence” and “guilt” just because the system declares it so is charmingly naive, to the point of funny and ridiculous. And dangerous. Sun Yang is officially “innocent” of a violation, even though he destroyed his samples. Does that mean he’s trustworthy? Heck no.

If we see Anti-Doping Violations as legit only if proven and confirmed by official process, then we cannot condemn Athlete A and celebrate Athlete B. And similarly, if two athletes are banned for shorter periods because the system decides both were “inadvertent dopers” but not deliberate cheats, then we are massive hypocrites if we celebrate one’s future success while we condemn the other to a life ban based on…what exactly? The flag on their shirt? The anthem they sing?

I wish I still had that sense of confidence in the system. Truth is, people are too keen to believe in black and white when they live in a world full of grey. And again, this may sound like anathema to those who want the evil villainous Yang to take the fall for all of sports-kind, but I think there are more indicting and suspicious things than that FINA report about a hammer. I am more suspicious of sudden late-emergers and transformative performances late in careers. Of associations with known dodgy coaches. Of TUEs being abused. Of missing three out of competition tests because of forgetfulness. Or even one because of a broken doorbell. Of clear lies around the possible doping act, the people, the leaks. These are “hammers”, too, they just make less noise and splash less blood on the floor.

But I don’t expect to ever see an athlete protest another for any of those things, because they’re “uncertain”. And that’s fine – I’m not writing this hoping that people stay off podiums just because they don’t like being beaten and think someone’s doping. Well, folks, newsflash – it’s all uncertain. Just read the 59 pages of that FINA Doping Panel. Sun Yang was clearly guilty of something that night, but it wasn’t as black and white as your desire needs it to be. We rarely see it as black and white was that, in fact. That alone makes it unusual (and thus worthy of condemnation).

But the grey is everywhere, and while we are all in the spirit of zero tolerance for previously failed tests, for unexplained anti-doping rule violations, for inadvertent doping with reduced bans, and applauding athletes for making stands against these things, let’s hold that line to the point where we do it for people other than the evil Chinese or Russians, and show a little less hypocrisy and bit more introspection.

WADA have appealed the FINA Doping panel decision and CAS should hear that in September. Perhaps more details emerge and we’ll be closer to finding out what transpired. If we do, we’ll be 0.001% wiser about the murkiness that is elite sport. And it’s great that the exposure of this darkness is protested, I take heart from it. I wish I saw it more, but directed at the system, not the athlete-pinata who is too easy to miss when you swing hard.

Ross

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