Everything he does have – his clutch of Olympic medals, his extraordinary plunder of world titles, the 1500-metre world record he has held for eight years and a name and sporting legacy proudly enmeshed in the story of modern China – goes on trial on Friday night.
Within the grand, belle epoque surrounds of Le Montreux Palace on the shores of Lake Geneva, Sun Yang will plead his case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport while lawyers for the World Anti-Doping Agency argue for him to be banned from swimming for up to eight years.
The hearing is scheduled for one day. The stakes could not be higher.
Although Sun won’t lose any of his medals or titles, the two-to-eight-year ban sought by WADA would force him out of the Tokyo Olympics, almost certainly end his swimming career and render hollow all he has achieved.
An adverse finding would also plunge Chinese swimming into crisis.
China has spent more than 20 years trying to erase the stain from its last major doping scandal; the growth hormone-fuelled program designed by former East German coaches which produced a grotesque domination of women’s swimming in the mid-to-late-1990s.
Sun is China’s next generation champion, the first man to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. He is a Communist Party member who, according to a recent WeChat post by his mother, is told each day how lucky he is to be competing for national glory.
Ming Yang, a former volleyball player, makes clear that as much as she loves her son, winning is more important than happiness. “The psychology of an athlete’s parents is sometimes very contradictory,’’ she says.
“On the one hand I have to ask him to complete the high-intensity training and encourage him to turn the pressure into the driving force of progress. On the other hand, I’m not sure whether what I’ve been insisting is the best thing for my son.”
There is also much at stake for Mack Horton, Australia’s Olympic champion who refused to share a podium with Sun Yang at this year’s swimming world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
Horton first declared Sun a drug cheat at the Rio Olympics. Since then, he has led a pool-deck revolt, supported by prominent swimmers from the US and Britain, against Sun Yang and the failings of the anti-doping regime put in place by FINA, swimming’s governing body.
Before the world championships, Sun Yang was cleared by a FINA panel of any doping offence. If that decision is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport then Horton will be left exposed. Already, the cost is real and ongoing.
Horton, his girlfriend, family members and people associated with him have been targeted by online trolls. He has lost a sponsorship opportunity with a global company that sells into China. He may have lost any chance of seeing his name on the newly built aquatic centre at his alma mater, Caulfield Grammar, which runs a campus in Nanjing.
The Horton family home has been targeted by vandals. Only last week, Mack’s father, Andrew Horton, reported fresh incidents of property damage to police. “It’s an ongoing problem,” said Andrew Horton, who declined to discuss the details.
Richard McGregor, a China expert with the Lowy Institute, sees Horton’s protest against Sun as an unlikely parable for a troubled bilateral relationship.
“In this small dispute, you can see a lot of the big themes play out,’’ he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald “Many Western countries complain of cheating, be it with stimulants in the pool or stealing the blueprints for a fighter jet. For the Chinese, the Western complaints are seen as sour grapes and just another attempt to keep the Chinese down.
“Australia has come to play an oversized role in this dynamic. The Chinese might begrudgingly swallow criticism from the US, which they see as their only peer country. From Australia, they seem to treat it as a form of impertinence.”
Andrew Horton insists his son’s beef is not with China nor even Sun Yang. “The issue is clean sport,’’ he said. “The protocol for testing has to be addressed, otherwise it is going to make a mockery of Tokyo.”
This is where swimming’s anti-doping system is also on trial.
The late-night confrontation between Sun and drug testers was triggered by an independent, out-of-competition testing mission commissioned by FINA. A key criticism of FINA’s anti-doping regime is the lack of this kind of testing, particularly in eastern European.
For all its import, the case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport turns on a seemingly mundane argument: whether the three-person anti-doping team which knocked on Sun’s door was armed with proper accreditation.
Sun is accused of failing to submit to a urine test and tampering with blood samples he had already given. His defence is that the doping control assistant responsible for witnessing the urine test didn’t have the right ID and the nurse who took his blood wasn’t qualified to take his blood.
Sun was advised on the night by his personal physician, Dr Ba Zhen, and Dr Han Zhaoqi, the deputy director of the Zhejiang anti-doing centre, to not let the testers leave with his blood.
Five years ago Dr Ba failed to warn Sun that a medication he was taking for a heart condition, trimetazidine, had been recently added to the banned list. The oversight cost Dr Ba a 12-month suspension. Sun was banned for three months but lost far more: his positive test is the reason Mack Horton called him a cheat in the first place.
The FINA anti-doping panel agreed with Sun that the drug-testing team did not have proper accreditation. It found that, far from a bureaucratic technicality, this goes to the heart of the mutual obligation inherent in anti-doping.
In the absence of proper accreditation, Sun was not properly notified of a testing mission and no samples could be taken, refused or tampered with. Sun had no case to answer.
The panel added that its decision was a “close run thing” and Sun had been “foolish in the extreme’’ to gamble his swimming career on his understanding of anti-doping procedures. If the Court of Arbitration takes a different view on the question of accreditation, Sun will be hard pressed to justify the extraordinary events which followed that night.
Why would Sun take such a gamble? To understand, you need to swim a mile in his togs.
Sun is uncomfortable in crowds, suspicious of people he doesn’t know and rarely goes out socially. He is paranoid that enemies might spike his drink, poison his food or otherwise seek to sabotage his career. He prefers to train outside of China, where he is not readily recognised. Wherever he travels, Ming Yang goes with him.
He once had a girlfriend. Her name was Li Yingnian and she worked as a flight attendant with Air China. They met in 2010 when he was travelling to Australia to train with his coach Denis Cotterell and a young Mack Horton on the Gold Coast. During the London Olympics, where Sun won both the 400-metre and 1500-metre events, their relationship blossomed. After the Games, when Sun stopped swimming to spend more time with Li Yingnian, his mother intervened.
Early one morning, Sun briefly opened a window into his deeply private world. “Who cares about me, please don’t hurt the one I care about,” he posted on Weibo. His relationship with Li ended shortly thereafter. Today, his only love beyond swimming is singing. His parents have installed a recording studio in their villa so he can indulge his passion at home.
That night at his villa, a protracted stand-off between Sun Yang and drug testers was similarly caused by suspicion and mistrust. Sun claims the entire episode was captured by surveillance cameras. “Everything is clear and apparent,” he says. When it comes to sport and China, things rarely are.
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.