Sun Yang, the three-time Olympic swimming champion from China, was suspended from competition for eight years for a drug-testing violation, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled on Friday, a decision that will keep him out of the Tokyo Olympics this year and likely end his career.
Sun, 28, a six-time Olympic medalist and the first Chinese man to win a swimming gold at the Games, had been fighting a multiyear battle with the World Anti-Doping Agency to preserve his eligibility to compete in international competition.
WADA brought a complaint against Sun, currently China’s most famous athlete, to the court after swimming’s international governing body declined to penalize him for refusing to cooperate with three antidoping officials who had traveled to his home in China to retrieve blood and urine samples.
During that confrontation in September 2018, Sun argued with the testers and his mother ordered a security guard to break his blood-sample vials with a hammer. Sun declined to submit a urine sample.
A panel unanimously found “to its comfortable satisfaction” that Sun had violated rules governing efforts to tamper with doping procedures, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said in a statement.
“The athlete failed to establish that he had a compelling justification to destroy his sample collection containers and forgo the doping control when, in his opinion, the collection protocol was not in compliance,” the court said.
The ban is the first imposed on a Chinese sports figure as influential as Sun, who is feted as a national hero, similar to the adulation showered on the country’s former basketball star Yao Ming.
This appears to be the biggest Chinese doping scandal since more than 30 of its swimmers were caught using banned substances in the 1990s and 40 of its 300 athletes were withdrawn by Chinese authorities from competing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a number for suspicious blood-test results.
Those removed from the 2000 Games included Ma Junren, the controversial distance running coach, whose athletes supposedly trained on a regimen of a marathon a day and diets of turtle soup and worm fungus.
The reaction from Chinese fans to the court ruling was immediate and furious. Social media platforms were flooded with messages of support for the swimmer and anger at the decision, which many described as anti-Chinese and designed to harm the country.
“This is unfair. I firmly believe in my innocence,” Sun told Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency. “I will definitely appeal to let more people know the truth.”
His options, however, appear to be limited. Should he take his case to the Swiss federal court, the appeal would be limited to whether procedures were properly followed and perhaps whether the punishment was proportionate.
Sun, who contended the testers had been unprofessional and lacked the proper paperwork, received only a warning from a tribunal from FINA, swimming’s governing body. WADA, the antidoping agency, appealed that decision, arguing for stronger penalties.
The court said that while athletes might have grounds to question the accreditation of testing personnel, the destruction of samples — an act that would prevent testing at a later date — in defiance of warnings about the consequences was not acceptable.
The November hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Montreux, Switzerland, translation issues marred the proceedings, and a new confrontation erupted — between Sun’s mother and opposing lawyers during cross-examination.
WADA said on Friday that it “welcomes the ruling.”
Sun is disdained by some fellow swimmers because of concerns about doping — he was suspended for three months by the Chinese swimming authorities in 2014 after he tested positive for a recently banned prescription drug — and several rivals verbally sparred with him at the world championships last July or refused to stand on the medals podium with him after races.
Sun won the 400- and 1500-meter freestyles at the London Games in 2012 and the 200 freestyle in Rio in 2016. He has three other Olympic medals and 16 from the world championships, including 11 gold.
Jeré Longman contributed reporting.