These calls have followed a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to ban Sun Yang of China for eight years.
CAS has found that Sun — who is Horton’s main rival — is guilty of tampering with a drug test.
Sun is one of the greatest swimmers of all time and second only to Michael Phelps of the US in his haul of titles and medals.
Horton made headlines around the world at the 2019 Swimming World Championships in South Korea when he refused to stand on the podium to receive his silver medal behind Sun, who had won gold in the 400 metres freestyle.
At the time, Sun was free to compete after international swimming’s independent FINA tribunal let him off with only a reprimand for “tampering” with a container that held vials of his blood from an aborted drug test.
That decision was appealed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to the CAS but had not yet been heard.
There is much more to this story.
While CAS has now banned Sun, the tribunal also found there was no evidence the Chinese swimmer had engaged in doping activity and should, therefore, keep his world titles and gold medals.
That finding has been lost in the wash-up.
Claims complicated by a past drug suspension
Sun has consistently rejected accusations that he is a drug cheat.
This claim is complicated by a past drug suspension sparked by medication he was prescribed for a heart condition — which has since been downgraded on the WADA banned list because it was found not to be performance-enhancing.
Do ‘drug cheat’ accusations stack up?
China’s Sun Yang has faced accusations of being a ‘drug cheat’ by opponents and media. But, writes Tracey Holmes, the truth may be a little more complicated than that.
During the FINA tribunal hearing and the CAS appeal, Sun argued the doping control officer’s paperwork was incomplete and two of the three members of the anti-doping party had no proper identification.
He said his name did not even appear on the documentation, which he considered to be highly unusual.
He should know, he has gone through this process hundreds of times.
His entourage — including his doctor Ba Zhen, the chief doctor of the Zhejiang College of Sport, Han Zhaoqi, and on the phone the team leader of China’s national swim team Cheng Hao — refused to let the testers take his blood vials now sealed inside a tamper-proof casing. The testers refused to leave without their casing.
His team claims a security guard broke open the container so the drug testers could take it while the blood vials allegedly remain stored in the hospital where Sun’s doctor works.
Horton made headlines around the world at the 2019 Swimming World Championships in South Korea when he refused to stand on the podium to receive his silver medal behind Sun. (Reuters: Kim Hong-Ji)
You would not know this from the media coverage, but the blood vials were not smashed with a hammer, only the container.
“To the panel’s knowledge,” the blood vials remain in the possession of Dr Ba (although they are no longer eligible to be tested because the chain of custody was broken).
The night began to unravel
The doping control test had been running as smoothly as any other. Sun had already given his blood without issue.
Next, Sun had to provide a urine sample. For that to happen the only male member of the doping control party would have to escort Sun to the bathroom where the swimmer would strip from the waist down to be observed at close range while passing urine. This is standard practice.
Sun became aware the man, known as a doping control assistant (DCA), had been taking photos of him and instructed the DCA he could not do that.
He asked to see the DCA’s accreditation and that of the nurse who had taken his blood. Then the night began to unravel.
According to the DCA’s own written statement, he was “very excited” to see the athlete, and “took two or three pictures” of him from behind.
Although the DCA did not testify in person, the CAS panel accepted his written statement, which was confirmed by the testimonies of several witnesses, including the doping control officer (DCO) in charge of the operation.
Security footage from the clubhouse where the testing was being 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.
“The panel considers that it would be totally inappropriate and unprofessional for a chaperone/DCA to take any photographs or videos of an athlete in the course of a sample collection process, unless there are compelling reasons to do so, such as the gathering of evidence or for reasons of record keeping,” the CAS panel said in its judgment.
The CAS panel says evidence presented before it, and not disputed, shows Sun offered to wait until a properly accredited team arrived, but the testing party did not take up the offer.
‘Absence of evidence’ around doping activity
While accepting the urine collection could not go ahead without a male chaperone, the panel had to consider whether that was reason enough for the entire sample collection to be aborted.
Sun claims at this point he lost trust in the anti-doping personnel.
He tore up the paperwork and his doctor, Dr Ba, handwrote a note presented in evidence, that was signed by Sun, Dr Ba and all three members of the anti-doping party:
“Under our repeated inquiries, among them only (the DCO) provided the certification of doping control officer, and the rest two could not provide doping control officer certification and any other relevant authority.
Therefore, the urine test and blood test cannot be completed. (The blood sample that has been collected could not be taken away.)”
In its 44-point conclusion, the panel found, “There was no justification, whether compelling or otherwise, for [Sun] to act as he did”.
In handing down an eight-year ban CAS stated, “The panel is bound to apply the rules as they have been written,” noting a new edition of the WADA code comes into effect on January 1, 2021, allowing for “exceptions to potentially reduce the period of ineligibility for violations”.
A group of Australians, including swimmers, coaches and the media, want Sun’s titles removed alongside the eight-year ban, and for Horton to get the gold medal he “deserves”. (Reuters: Stefan Wermuth)
“The panel considers that an eight-year period of ineligibility is, although justified in application of the rules for the reasons set out, a severe sanction.”
CAS also gave three reasons why it did not recommend stripping Sun’s titles and medals as requested by WADA.
Most importantly, CAS noted, “there is no evidence before the panel that the athlete may have engaged in doping activity” between the night of the test and the date of the CAS decision.
‘My stance has always been about clean sport’
The group, including swimmers, coaches and the media, want Sun’s titles removed alongside the eight-year ban, and for Horton to get the gold medal he “deserves“.
Horton was far quieter after Australian swimmer Shayna Jack failed a drugs test on the eve of the World Championships last year (and is awaiting her CAS hearing), however, than he was about Sun.
When questioned about Jack, Horton walked away from questions about his former teammate before releasing a written statement a day later.
Horton maintains his criticism of Sun is justified.
Speaking to the Olympic network, Channel 7, after the CAS finding, Horton said: “My stance has always been about clean sport, never about nations or individuals”.
But this stance has left questions over why Horton took exception to Sun while overlooking others on the Australian team who have also been caught up in doping controversies.
A good example is his 4×200-metre relay teammate at last year’s World Championships — the same competition in which Horton refused to stand on the podium next to Sun.
Thomas Fraser-Holmes was banned for 12 months after missing three drug tests within a year.
Athletes come up with many reasons why they miss drug tests — they couldn’t turn up, they forgot, they were in the wrong place. Sometimes arbitrators believe them and sometimes not.
Fraser-Holmes was penalised, as was fellow Australian Jarrod Poort for also missing three tests inside a year.
Yet another teammate, Madeleine Groves, who also missed three tests in a year, was not penalised after arguing the testers were at one place at her university, while she was at another.
Missing one or two tests in the space of a year is not a problem.
To miss three in any 12-month period is viewed by arbitrators as the equivalent of failing a drug test.
But Horton has not vocally condemned these swimmers.
Things are never as simple as they seem
In hindsight, Sun Yang could have just stayed away when his mum rang him on September 4, 2018, and told him the testers had arrived and he should get back home quickly to make the one-hour window that is allowed for testing.
According to Sun’s Australian coach Dennis Cotterell, it was his ninth drug test in two weeks.
He’d only just finished competing at the Asian Games where he’d been tested every day. On average Sun is tested once every 10 to 12 days.
Labelling an athlete a drug cheat may make a sensational headline, and staging a podium protest may provide great television, but what the Sun case demonstrates is it’s rarely as simple as that. (Reuters: Stefan Wermuth)
According to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) website, on average one Australian athlete a month tests positive after taking supplements.
Some are inadvertent. Some are cheats. There are currently more than 50 banned athletes serving sanctions imposed by Australia’s drug testing agency, ASADA. But most Australian sports fans would struggle to name one.
Labelling an athlete a drug cheat may make a sensational headline, and staging a podium protest may provide great television, but what the Sun case demonstrates is it’s rarely as simple as that.