Distance swimming includes not only some of the hardest events in swimming, but across all sports. Although there have been outstanding Olympic distance swimming champions in the past, including legends such as Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins, the rapidly burgeoning resume of Chinese swimming phenomenon Sun Yang has already eclipsed all of them. Leading into 2020, the star athlete seemed primed to continue his dominance.
Despite this wave of momentum, however, all of these prospects abruptly ended in February 2020, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) handed Sun a staggering eight-year suspension from the sport for failing to comply with anti-doping testing protocols. Given his previous accomplishments and demonstrable talent, Sun’s suspension marked a tremendous loss for both the Chinese national team and the sport of swimming as a whole.
Sun Yang’s Swimming Career
Sun showed great promise from an extremely young age. He qualified for his first Olympics in 2008 at just 16 years old, where he placed 28th in the 400 freestyle and eighth in the 1500 freestyle. From 2009 through 2011, his results rapidly began to improve as he began to enter his physical prime.
The 2011 World Championships represented a real breakthrough for Sun. He finished second overall in the 400 freestyle, right behind Korean powerhouse Park Tae-hwan. He subsequently won his first-ever World Championship title in the 800 freestyle and followed that up with another win in the 1500 freestyle, a race in which he broke Hackett’s decade-old world record. Hackett’s was the longest-standing world record in swimming, and Sun symbolized the emergence of a new distance legend.
At the 2012 Olympics, Sun began an era of long-standing dominance in both middle distance and distance freestyle. He won gold medals in the 400 freestyle and the 1500 freestyle, and he also grabbed a silver in the 200 freestyle. In the 2013 through 2016 Olympics, Sun continued to accumulate medals and generally dominated his events outside certain upsets at the hands of rivals such as Australia’s Mack Horton. His gold medal in the 200 free at the 2016 Olympics made Sun the first-ever swimmer to claim gold medals across the 200, 400 and 1500 freestyle events.
Sun continued his success from 2016 to 2019, even amid a rising wave of new contenders in distance swimming. Unfortunately for Sun, he began to deal with doping allegations during this time period, which saw many of Sun’s rivals and fellow swimmers speak out in protest against Sun, labeling him a drug cheat.
Sun Yang’s Suspension
Although Sun had served a brief suspension in 2014 for taking a prohibited substance, his infamous altercation with drug testers in 2018 marked the beginning of a downward spiral for Sun’s public image. In September 2018, three anti-doping testers came to Sun’s house to administer a drug test. During the test, Sun noticed that the testers had been taking pictures of him, so he requested accreditations, which they did not provide. Sun thus decided not to sign the testing paperwork and had his security guard smash the case containing his blood and urine samples, preventing them from being tested.
A complex controversy ensued, with Sun’s defenders citing the unprofessional conduct of the drug testers while others questioned Sun’s refusal to allow his samples to be tested. Sun continued to compete in international contests despite this ongoing controversy. However, fellow swimmers such as Horton and Duncan Scott had public altercations with Sun, which included verbal fights and the refusal to stand on the podium alongside Sun during the customary medal ceremonies. Although these incidents certainly dampened Sun’s legacy, they paled in comparison to the next progression in the investigation.
In February 2020, the CAS found Sun guilty of refusing to cooperate with sample testers and banned him from swimming until February 2028. To miss out on eight full years of competition, which would include two entire Olympic cycles, would effectively end Sun’s international swimming career. To date, Sun has not been able to compete as a result of the ban.
Does He Have a Swimming Future?
Despite this setback, Sun’s legal team has repeatedly attempted to appeal the ban; recently, they finally made some headway. Sun’s lawyers alleged that the CAS decision was fueled by racism, citing racist tweets from the panel president, Franco Frattini. In December 2020, the verdict for the ban was rescinded and referred back to CAS. As a result, Sun’s career may not officially be over after all. That said, the incident undeniably leaves a number of questions surrounding Sun’s legacy.
Whether the arbitration process ultimately finds Sun guilty or not, his refusal to allow his samples to be tested strongly suggests that Sun has been abusing performance-enhancing drugs for at least some portion of his career. With that in mind, questions will always surround the validity of Sun’s accomplishments, regardless of how many medals the Chinese superstar has won or may win in the future. Even though the CAS maintained that Sun would not officially be stripped of his previous medals as a result of the test, those results still cannot be fully trusted, as athletes across all sports have found ways to circumvent drug testing.
Sun’s resume has contained some of the highest highs ever seen in the sport of swimming. To win multiple gold medals in individual events over multiple Olympics and international competitions requires an extraordinary amount of training, especially for distance events. Furthermore, Sun’s distinct stroke technique and his efficiency within the water remain practically unmatched to this day.
Through his style, he represented the pinnacle of Olympic distance swimming and led the way for a new generation of distance swimmers, showing the world a new level of precision and demonstrating the capabilities of the human body throughout the most grueling races in the entire sport. In the end, however, Sun’s legacy will never escape the shadow of illegitimacy that hangs over his brightest moments.