A Star Swimmer’s Doping Hearing Gets Lost in Translation

MONTREUX, Switzerland — International swimming’s favorite villain, Sun Yang, endured a spectacle Friday as the highest court in sports held a rare public hearing for an athlete’s doping case.

The high-stakes battle about the eligibility of Sun, a six-time Olympic medalist and a star in his native China, at the Court of Arbitration for Sport quickly descended into confusion. There were translation issues throughout the day and a pitched confrontation between Sun’s mother and opposing lawyers during cross-examination.

At stake is whether Sun, one of his sport’s dominant figures, will be able to compete in the 2020 Olympics. The World Antidoping Agency brought a complaint against Sun to CAS after swimming’s national governing body declined to penalize him for refusing to cooperate with three antidoping officials who traveled to his home in China to retrieve blood and urine samples from him for testing. Sun, 27, requested the hearing take place in public.

The hearing, held in a lakeside annex of a luxury Swiss hotel, was only the second of its kind to be open to the public since the court was established 35 years ago. It delivered an unusual glimpse into how justice is rendered — or isn’t — in the cloistered and often shadowy world of international sports.

Sun’s case, which could lead to a suspension of between two and eight years, is being closely followed by his rivals, many of whom sparred verbally with Sun at July’s world championships in South Korea. Some of Sun’s competitors did little to hide their contempt for him at that meet — one refused to stand on the medals podium with him, and another refused to shake his hand after losing to him — and few argued he should not have been allowed to participate while was facing an open doping case. Sun previously was suspended, in 2014, by Chinese swimming authorities after he tested positive for a banned prescription drug. At the time, Chinese authorities did not disclose the ban to WADA.

The decision on Sun’s future will turn on a fractious three-hour visit by antidoping officials to his home last November that ended when his mother directed a security guard to smash a container containing Sun’s blood with a hammer. Sun’s entourage accused the officials of not having the correct paperwork to carry out their tasks and leave with his sample. He refused to provide a urine sample.

During questioning on Friday, Sun, dressed in a navy suit and polka dot tie, delivered statements that often sounded unrelated to what he was being asked.

“You couldn’t tell if he was being monumentally evasive or if he couldn’t understand the questions,” said Richard Young, an American lawyer making WADA’s closing argument. “It was hard to tell because the translation was so bad.”

Sun’s legal team had chosen the first translator, but there was confusion from each side on what was being said almost immediately. Halfway through the hearing, both sides agreed to replace the first translator with Ying Cui, a Chinese WADA official who also speaks English.

Lawyers at the hearing said that between 2012 and 2018 Sun had undergone 180 drug tests, of which 117 were out of competition. Of those more than half were carried out by representatives of the company, Sweden-based I.D.T.M., that visited his home the night the vials were smashed.

All of the other tests occurred without incident, the lawyers said, except for one in 2017 when Sun had clashed with a woman on the collection team whom he accused of lacking correct documentation.

Sun later detailed how he and his entourage — which included a personal doctor who has served two doping suspensions of his own — doubted the paperwork and qualifications of the officials conducting the tests. Their frustration only grew after what Sun’s side described as inappropriate behavior by a chaperone, who took several photos and claimed to be a huge fan of the swimmer.

“How are you able to trust them?” Sun said.

Young said Sun’s refusal to cooperate, even if the sample had not been smashed, constituted a violation.

Sun’s mother, Yang Ming, said she became so concerned about what was happening that she had considered calling the police. She repeatedly clashed with another WADA lawyer, Brent Rychener, who pushed her to get to the point of her testimony. At one point, she snapped at Rychener, telling him she had not finished speaking.

Two members of the team that had tried to administer the tests on Sun were allowed to give evidence in private before the hearing. The chaperone accused of filming and taking photos of Sun declined to appear at all, and instead provided only written testimony that was not made public.

The court also heard testimony from Ba Zhen, who has served two doping suspensions for his work with Sun, the first for supplying the swimmer with a banned drug and the second for continuing to coach him while banned. Sun said he sought Ba’s advice on how to handle the three officials seeking samples from him.

“Given you’ve been found guilty of multiple antidoping rule violations, do you think you’re the right person for that?” asked Rychener, the WADA lawyer.

The case has also drawn focus on a general lack of independence in the antidoping process at sports governing bodies. In swimming’s case, FINA, the sport’s governing body, appoints the doping panel that determined Sun had taken a “huge and foolish gamble” with his actions during the failed doping test. But it refused to punish him.

Cornel Marculescu, FINA’s longtime executive director, told Germany’s ZDF television earlier this year that swimming needed to protect its biggest names. “You cannot condemn the stars just because they had a minor accident with doping,” Marculescu said.

Before Sun’s initial hearing at FINA, the organization replaced two officials — an Australian and an American — at the last moment, raising concerns about the process that eventually failed to punish Sun.

Friday’s hearing ended with additional translation confusion when the president of the three-judge panel suddenly spotted a man in a blue shirt to the right of Sun as he gave his closing remarks in Chinese.

“Excuse me, who are you?” asked the president, Franco Frattini. The man identified himself as a translator beckoned over by the swimmer, to make sure his words had been captured accurately. Frattini, visibly angry, told Sun he could not randomly choose people to participate.

“There are some rules,” Frattini said. “It’s not up to you to appear before the court.”

A decision in the case is expected early next year.

Tariq Panja reported from Montreux, Switzerland, and Karen Crouse from Phoenix.