Only three days into the official start of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and we have our first controversy. Australian Mack Horton, who won the gold medal in the 400 meter freestyle race on Saturday, has called runner-up Sun Yang of China a “drug cheat” – twice.
Sun served a three-month ban in 2014 after testing positive for the stimulant trimetazidine. Sun admitted to taking the drug, but said it was part of a medication he used to treat heart palpitations, and that he had not been aware of its recent addition to the banned substance list. The China Anti-Doping Agency, which called Sun’s positive test “not very serious,” only released news of the ban after it had been served, leading some to deride the punishment as “secret.” Also controversially, the ban ended in time for Sun, arguably China’s most famous swimmer, to represent his country at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea in fall 2014.
Horton certainly saw something amiss, and had no problem labeling Sun a “drug cheat” for the 2014 incident. That sparked outrage in China, with swim team manager Xu Qi denouncing the “malicious personal attack” that “greatly hurt the feelings between Chinese and Australian swimmers.”
“We strongly demand an apology from this swimmer,” Xu said.
That apology was not forthcoming. Instead, the chief executive of Australia’s swim team, Mark Anderson, came out firmly in support of Horton, telling Fairfax Media that “Mack made that statement and we absolutely back it.” The Australian Olympic Committee took a similar stance, saying that “Mack is entitled to express a point of view… that is his right. He has spoken out in support of clean athletes.”
Chinese fans were not satisfied with that response. They spammed Horton’s social media pages with vomit emojis and angry rants, deriding the Australian as a racist “snake.”
The Sun Yang incident is not the only case of a successful Chinese athlete having his or her accomplishments questioned. At the 2012 London Olympics, Ye Shiwen, then only 16, set the world record in the 400 individual medley, swimming the final 50 meters of the race faster than the eventual men’s champion, Ryan Lochte (although his overall time was far faster than hers). That incredible performance earned her not admiration but suspicion from the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, John Leonard. Leonard told the press, “Any time someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sport they have later been found guilty of doping.”
Ye, unlike Sun, had never tested positive for banned substances; there was no evidence that she had taken performance enhancing drugs aside from her extraordinary come-from-behind victory in the 400 IM. It should also be noted that her supposedly suspicious world record has already fallen; it was broken by more than two seconds at this year’s games by Hungarian Katinka Hosszu (Ye herself, who has struggled with injuries, did not make the Olympic final of the 400 IM in Rio, finishing in 27th place).
The questioning of Ye’s accomplishment sparked anger in China, and the same accusations of racism that followed Horton’s barb at Sun. “Olympic champions have to have guts, determination, belief and grace under pressure, qualities that are also needed to face the slings and arrows of false accusations,” China Daily declared, praising Ye’s composure. Some Chinese netizens wondered aloud why Ye was immediately suspected of doping, while 15-year-old U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky, who similarly breezed past the field on her way to a world record, was simply praised for an astonishing feat.
So why is it that Chinese athletes are so often labelled “cheats,” even without the slightest bit of evidence?
Part of the problem is that China has had high-profile instances of cheating before. That makes its athletes easy targets, even decades later. China was suspected to have instituted a doping program for female swimmers in the 1990s; coaches from Australia and the United States at the time compared the rapid improvement of the Chinese program to suspicious gains by Eastern Germany, long the paramount example of state-sanctioned steroid use. Groups of Chinese swimmers tested positive for steroids at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima and the 1998 World Aquatics Championships. At the latter, swimmer Yuan Yuan was found to have 13 vials of human growth hormone in her luggage. Yuan was the only swimmer sent home, though some saw the incident as proof the entire team was taking HGH (ironically, in 1998, the same John Leonard who later questioned Ye Shiwen’s performance advocated for giving the Chinese team the benefit of the doubt).
Meanwhile, the 2016 Olympics have already been tainted by revelations of a massive state-sanctioned doping program run by Russia. The entire Russian track and field team was banned from the Olympics as a result; athletes still participating – such as the Russian swimmers – have faced hostility from both crowds and fellow athletes, with the Russian men’s 4×100 freestyle relay team loudly booed when they emerged in the arena for the finals.
What do Russian transgressions have to do with Sun Yang? Nothing – and everything. During the Cold War, the USSR’s state athletics machine churned out high-achieving athletes, apparently by any means necessary. It’s all too easy for China, with its huge state-sponsored sporting apparatus, its all-powerful government, and its questionable past, to be categorized along with Russia as the heir-apparent to that large-scale doping. And that Russia was recently found to be guilty of just that only reinforces those suspicions.
It’s not racism that makes Chinese swimmers easy targets; it’s political mistrust. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has long been seen in the West as opaque, dismissive of international rules, and obsessed with international prestige (including in sports). That’s a perfect recipe for a state-sponsored doping program – and so whether or not China is currently conducting such a program (and, again, there’s no evidence that it is), it is half-believed to be guilty already, simply by virtue of its political system.
That’s also why democracies with known doping issues – including Jamaica and the United States – generally find that their athletes receive far less suspicion (at least in the West) than their counterparts from Russia or China. Democracies tend to trust fellow democracies, whether in diplomacy or sports. Sadly, China’s athletes end up paying the price for this real-life embodiment of a principle from international relations theory.