In August 2016, two years after Sun Yang was banned for three months because he’d been caught using an illegal stimulant, he won the Olympic 200m freestyle. It was his third gold medal, after his victories in the 400m and 1500m at London 2012. Sun explained the drug was medication for a heart problem. Still, it’s fair to say that some people there weren’t too happy about it. Australian freestyler Mack Horton called him a “drugs cheat”, French backstroker Camille Lacourt said he “pisses purple”. Others, though, seemed to be genuinely pleased for him. Particularly Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of Fina, the international swimming federation, who gave Sun a long hug after he stepped off the podium.
Afterwards, Sun explained that Marculescu had been “like a grandfather” to him. “He is a very good friend of the Chinese swim team,” he said. “So I was very happy to see him see me win the gold. I hope this friendship will last.” It did. A year later, Fina made a special point of celebrating “this friendship” at their World Aquatics Gala in the Chinese city of Sanya, when they presented Sun with a bespoke award for “Outstanding Contribution to Swimming Popularity in China”. Asked about it afterwards, a Fina spokesman told Inside the Games the award had been made at “the request of the China Swimming Association”.
You don’t need goggles to see to the bottom of this relationship. At that same gala Fina’s president, Julio Maglione, spoke about how “China is surely a very valuable partner for Fina”. He was especially keen to stress the commercial benefits of the relationship. “The Chinese market is a very vibrant one,” he said. “This represents countless business opportunities for Western brands.” China, Maglione added, is “one of the most committed countries in the promotion of aquatics. And the results are quite fruitful: Chinese athletes are shining at the highest level at Fina competitions.” None brighter than Sun.
In the world of swimming, everyone knows how Maglione and Marculescu run the sport. Maglione, 84, has been president for 10 years, Marculescu, 78, has been executive director for 34. Between them, they’ve weathered a series of scandals. The Sun Yang case is the biggest yet.
The question facing them now is whether “this friendship” had any bearing on the way Fina has behaved since the Sunday Times broke the story that Sun had missed an out-of-competition drugs test in 2018 because he had got into a row with the team who had come to do the testing. The argument ended with one of Sun’s entourage smashing the vials containing his blood samples. Fina’s doping panel held an inquiry, which found the officials doing the testing hadn’t followed the correct protocols, so the samples weren’t valid. Which meant that whatever else he’d taken a hammer to, Sun hadn’t broken any rules.
Last July, Sun won two more gold medals at the world championship in Gwangju. Horton refused to share a podium with him, so did Scottish freestyler Duncan Scott. Sun blew up. “You’re a loser,” he told Scott as they walked off. “I’m a winner.” In private, Fina warned all three about their conduct, but in public Marculescu singled out Horton and Scott. “It’s unfortunate,” he said, of two men who were protesting their right to compete in a clean sport. “We are regret they put the sport in disrepute.” Soon after, Fina rushed through new rules compelling all medal winners to stand on the podium and banning them from making “political statements”.
Meanwhile, the World Anti-Doping Agency launched an appeal against the Fina decision at the court of arbitration for sport. And they’ve now come to a very different conclusion to the one Fina reached. They’ve ruled that the doping officials had followed protocol, so Sun was guilty of tampering with his samples. The key point in the Cas ruling is this: “it is one thing to question the accreditation of the testing personnel while keeping the intact samples in the possession of the testing authorities; it is quite another thing, after lengthy exchanges and warnings as to the consequences, to act in such a way that results in destroying the sample containers, thereby eliminating any chance of testing the sample at a later stage.”
You might have expected Fina to remain studiously neutral in all this. But it recently emerged that behind the scenes they had supported an effort made in the Swiss courts to stop Wada’s lead prosecutor, Richard Young, from participating in the Cas hearing. Young had previously served on Fina’s legal commission but stood down to work for Wada on this case. Still, Sun’s lawyers, with Fina’s help, tried force him to stand down because of a possible conflict of interest. They failed. Fina also sided with Sun’s legal team in a second complaint against Wada’s appeal hearing, when they raised a plea of inadmissibility because of the alleged late filing of Wada’s brief.
It’s not clear how Fina’s doping panel and Cas could draw two such distinct verdicts from the one set of facts about what Sun did that night. It’s not clear why Fina decided to involve themselves in Sun’s defence. It’s not clear why they cooperated in two attempts to hinder Wada’s appeal against their verdict. Right now, about the only thing that is clear about the way Fina run this sport is the water in the pool.