There is more to the Sun Yang case than racist tweets

J. W. AssociateBlog, China, Racism, U.S. media

by Rick Sterling

This following piece, by JWE Board Rick Sterling is crossposted from the Sports Integrity Initiative

In late December 2020, the Swiss Supreme Court rocked the international sports world by overturning an eight year ban issued to Chinese swimming superstar Sun Yang. Earlier, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) against an international swimming federation (FINA) Decision to clear the Olympic champion Chinese swimmer Sun Yang of a doping offence. The reason the Swiss court overturned the ban was that the panel’s President had publicly issued tweets which seemed blatantly racist. 

In this article, I will show how tweets were the tip of the iceberg at the CAS. I will also show how certain media have smeared Sun Yang through questionable stories, perhaps encouraging some western athletes to make personal attacks antithetical to the Olympic Charter.  

Background and Current Status

Sun Yang is a phenomenally successful Chinese swimmer. He has won eleven world swimming titles, three Olympic Gold medals, and holds the all-time world record in the 1,500m. He is hugely popular in China which, like all countries, treasures their athletic superstars. 

For the past eight years, Sun Yang has had hundreds of blood and urine doping tests – on average, one every two weeks. On 4 September 2018, an ‘out of competition’ test was disrupted. It was late at night, with Sun Yang arriving after travelling all day from the Asian Games in Indonesia. Details of what happened are described here. 

Essentially, Sun Yang and his team determined the test team was not properly certified and they could not release his blood sample. The test team said they could not leave without their equipment. Afterward, the test team (from a private US/Swedish contractor) claimed that Sun Yang had evaded and tampered with a doping control, an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV) that attracts a four year ban. Here is the timeline since then: 

  • FINA’s Doping Panel determined that Sun Yang was justified in aborting the test.
  • WADA did not like the decision. They took the case against Sun Yang and FINA to the CAS.
  • In February 2020, CAS announced its Decision: it decided in favor of WADA and determined that Sun Yang should be banned for eight years.
  • Sun Yang’s legal team appealed this decision to the only place they could: the Swiss Supreme Court (also known as the Swiss Federal Tribunal). 

In late December 2020, the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) dropped a bombshell. It overturned the CAS decision against Chinese swimmer Sun Yang. In explaining its decision, the SFT said ‘doubts as to the impartiality of the Arbitrator were objectively justified’. They said this because this article revealed that the head of the judicial Panel, Franco Frattini, had publicly posted tweets accusing China and a ‘yellow faced Chinese monster’ of cruelty to animals. 

It is likely that CAS will hold a new hearing on the Sun Yang case with a new judicial panel sometime soon. Sun Yang is now training for the Summer Olympics, which begin on 23 July in Tokyo. If he wins the hearing, Sun Yang will compete in Tokyo. If not, his eight year ban will stand. 

Political Bias at CAS

According to its website, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has nearly 300 Arbitrators from 87 countries. Why were all three CAS Arbitrators from European NATO countries (UK, Belgium, and Italy)? In an era where NATO sees China as a challenge to ‘deal with’, there is a potential for political bias. 

With these three judges, political bias appears to be a glaring problem. The panel President, Franco Frattini, was the Italian Foreign Minister who promoted the invasion of Iraq (2003) and overthrow of the Libyan government (2011). The second judge, Romano Subiotto, advised US National Security Advisor John Bolton about tactics for subverting the Venezuelan government. He tweeted to Bolton: ‘Parachute the aid into Venezuela … make it practically impossible for the Venezuelan military to control the influx.’ The third judge, Philippe Sands, was lead Counsel against Chinese claims in the South China Sea. 

According to its website, CAS has eleven Arbitrators who speak Chinese (Mandarin). The hearing was marred by poor translation and misunderstanding. Some of the misunderstandings could have been avoided if at least one of the Arbitrators could speak Chinese. The appointment of at least one such Arbitrator would have dampened concerns about Western bias.

In an exceptionally fair review, Australian sports journalist Tracey Holmes wrote

Despite having numerous registered arbitrators that are fluent in Mandarin, none were selected as part of the three-person panel. It is difficult to imagine an Australian athlete would ever have to argue his or her case in front of three jurors, none of whom spoke English.

Cultural bias was also a factor. Panel members commented negatively on Sun Yang’s personality and the panel President secretly mocked the testimony of Sun Yang’s mother. Fortunately, the hearing’s video recording was made publicly available so the bias can be seen. No recordings of CAS proceedings have been made publicly available since.

In contrast, when Australian swimmer Shayna Jack went before CAS, the sole Arbitrator was Australian and he gushed over her personality and testimony. 

Media Bias and Misleading Reports

Some western media have been hostile to Sun Yang to a bizarre extent. Media has promoted criticism of Sun Yang’s crooked smile and jagged teeth. They have promoted criticism of his creepy long thumbnail.  

This may have contributed to Sun Yang’s sensitivity to being photographed. The controversy on the night of the aborted test began with an undocumented test team member secretly photographing him. That prompted him to look more carefully and see that one test team member had no accreditation and another had faulty accreditation.

After the CAS Decision banning him for eight years, certain media were quick to applaud the decision and to discount any chance of it being overturned. Swimming World reported ‘Sun Yang appeal has slim chance of success’. Some competitors were gleeful and accusatory: ‘Adam Peaty welcomes eight year ban after Sun Yang disrespects the sport’

Some prominent media had reports of Sun Yang’s fan base in China disappearing. Jonathan White at The South China Morning Post proclaimed  ‘Sun Yang fan group disbands as supporters ditch swimmer on Chinese social media’. This was amplified by Craig Lord, editor of Swimming World, with a story titled ‘Sun Yang Support Association Dissolves with Apology to China, Athletes & All Who Have Been Misled and Deceived’

While some peripheral reporting around such a high profile case is to be expected, some of these reports were deeply deceptive. There are two major fan organisations in China: The Sun Yang National Support Association, which currently has 155,148 members, and the Sun Yang Forum Fans Club, which currently has 43,939 members. These organisations issued a joint statement denying the false reports (see right). With ready access to China, how does Jonathan White at The South China Morning Post explain such misleading reporting? As admitted in the SCMP report, Sun Yang has over 33 million followers on Chinese social media network Weibo.

The attempts to undermine Sun Yang extended to his long time Australian Coach Denis Cotterell. After the CAS issued its decision banning Sun Yang for eight years, some media were quick to say that the Coach no longer supported Sun Yang. Typical headlines were Coach Denis Cotterell makes major call on disgraced swimmer Sun Yang and ‘Sun Yang coach Denis Cotterell drops swimmer after CAS ban over doping tests’

What was unreported was that Denis went to Switzerland to observe the CAS hearing and support Sun. After the hearing, he emailed me to say he agreed with my analysis, Chinese swimmer Sun Yang is being falsely punished. Denis did not support the appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal because he thought it was an impossible win and would be even more demoralizing. As further examples of media bias if not racism, one journalist made a ‘slip of the tongue to call Sun Yang a “Chinese cheat”.

Baseless Accusations

It is worthwhile examining in greater detail the accusations made by South African swimmer Chad Le Clos. After the CAS decision in early 2020, Le Clos said of Sun Yang,

We’ve all known that he’s a dirty swimmer. … I was ahead by a long way with 50 meters to go in that race [200 m freestyle at Rio Olympics], but Sun Yang came past me. He was the only man who did that, and that says it all really… Sun passed me like was standing still in the last 25 meters, which is unheard of…. I believe I deserve that gold medal.

The Olympic race video shows what really happened. As the sports announcer remarked, Le Clos had “used up much of his energy already”. Le Clos barely hung on to take second place. As The Guardian reported at the time,’The Chinese swimmer held a more consistent pace than the rest of the pool throughout the race, with all his splits under 27 seconds’.

Le Clos’s suggestion there was something fishy about him losing to Sun Yang does not stand scrutiny. Why has he not been questioned or challenged about this?  

The unpleasant truth is that competing athletes can benefit when a strong competitor is banned. Le Clos was explicit in his request for the Gold medal. Consciously or not, the material incentive can influence one’s beliefs and convictions. That is another reason why athletes assuming the role of accuser, judge and jury is wrong.

Media Promoting Personal Accusations

That raises another issue: the role of the media in promoting sensational personal accusations and failing to question athletes who make accusations with little or no proof. When Mack Horton publicly called Sun Yang a “drug cheat” in 2016, he should have been questioned. Although Sun Yang was sanctioned for an ADRV in 2014, the anti-doping panel concluded it was not intentional. Sun Yang had been taking the heart medication (trimetazidine) since 2008. He and his doctor argued that they didn’t know that the medication had become prohibited ‘in competition’ from January 2014, and that line of argument was accepted.

But when Mack Horton said Sun Yang was a “drug cheat”, he was widely heroised. This, as well as media distortions and failures to report accurately, undoubtedly contributed to Horton’s refusal to share the podium with Sun Yang in 2019 at the swimming world championships. That action was followed by British swimmer Duncan Scott also refusing to share the podium with Sun Yang. FINA issued warnings to Horton and Scott, but their actions reportedly generated much support in an increasingly jingoistic and anti-China environment. 

It was not always this way. When Chad Le Clos won Silver at the Rio 2016 Olympics, the photo of him on the podium with Sun Yang does not show any of the rancor and hostility which later emerged. Similarly, Sun Yang was reportedly friendly with Australian swimmers including Mack Horton in the past. The media has unfortunately played a role in poisoning the international swimming atmosphere.  

Podium Protests

There is a qualitative difference between the podium protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 and the podium protest of Mack Horton and Duncan Scott. In the first case, they were decrying racism in the United States. The third man on the podium was the Australian Peter Norman. He was silver medal winner in the 200-meter sprint and supported the protests of his fellow athletes. 

In contrast, the refusal to share the podium was an attention-grabbing personal accusation based on dubious assumptions. The anti-Chinese bias of some Mack Horton fans is clear, as is the anti-Australia sentiment of some Sun Yang fans. 

Anti-Doping Zealotry

Geopolitical tension between the West and other countries is increasing. In this situation, international sport can either reduce or exacerbate the tensions. The Olympic Charter has a noble and much needed goal: 

promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity … without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play…[and] political neutrality.

Athletes trashing other athletes is clearly not in the Olympic spirit. Neither are assumptions of guilt. Nor is collective punishment based on nationality. 

The racist tweets from a CAS Panel President indicate that this body needs to be more carefully monitored. The problem is more than the tweets; it is the bias that produced the tweets. The Sun Yang case also shows how media and outspoken athletes need to be questioned and sometimes challenged, especially when they are supporting the ‘anti-doping cause’