• Emily Rollo

Sun Yang Sparks Frustration in Doping Control Protocols

Updated: Apr 14


Mack Horton refused to stand on podium with “drug cheat” Sun Yang at the 2019 World Championships.

Sun Yang is one of the most accomplished swimmers in Olympic history with 14 Olympic and World Championship titles and world records in the 800- and 1500-meter freestyle events.[1] However, in recent years he has not been recognized for his achievements in the pool, but rather for his dramatic doping incident. In September 2018, he refused to cooperate with anti-doping officials who arrived at his house requesting samples.[2] He accused the officials of not having the appropriate paperwork to obtain samples and then instructed the security guards to destroy his samples with a hammer.[3]


The Doping Panel for FINA, the international federation for Olympic water sports, found that proper protocol was not followed and issued a warning.[4] This decision was controversial, and many wondered whether it was an effort by FINA to protect the legacy of one of swimming’s biggest stars.[5] The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was most concerned and appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).[6] The court issued an eight-year ban finding that Yang had not established a plausible explanation for destroying his samples.[7]


Yang, outraged by this unprecedented suspension in Chinese sports history, appealed by challenging the impartiality of panelist Franco Frattini, former Italian foreign minister.[8] Yang’s lawyers brought evidence of Frattini’s tweets with anti-Chinese sentiments and slurs.[9] Unexpectedly, CAS overruled his suspension, ultimately freeing him to compete.[10]


WADA appealed the decision on grounds that FINA did not comply with the World Anti-Doping Code and International Standard for Testing and Investigations.[11] Additionally, WADA challenged the timing of Yang’s petition against Frattini arguing that the concerns around Frattini’s neutrality should have been raised prior to the hearing, so that the court could address the matter before a decision was rendered.[12]


Just one month ago, the CAS announced that the Sun Yang case will be revisited, but it is unclear when that will happen.[13] CAS admitted that the decision to overturn his ban was not decided on the merits of the case itself.[14] For the time being, Yang is free to compete until a new decision is made.[15]


Also, before Yang’s case was heard on appeal by WADA, Yang competed at the 2019 World Championships.[16] Many expressed their disappointment in his ability to compete while facing an open doping case, including his competitors who publicly refused to shake hands and stand on the podium with Yang at the World Championships.[17]


As the swimming world anxiously awaits the CAS’s newest decision regarding Yang’s eligibility, many are questioning the fairness in the procedures and reasoning of the governing bodies involved in doping cases against swimmers.[18]


One specific case stirred confusion by Americans in 2018, just two months prior to Yang’s vile smashing incident. Madisyn Cox, USA National Team member and Olympic hopeful was suspended from competition for two years after testing positive for an extremely low amount of a banned substance, Trimetazidine.[19] The amount was so low that it did not provide her with any additional performance benefits.[20] In 2014, Yang was suspended for traces of this same substance, but was only banned for three months.[21]


Although FINA found Cox to be an honest and credible athlete through testimony, they still issued a severe sanction that would prevent her from competing in critical competitions leading up to the Olympic Trials.[22]The substance is well-documented to be found in US drinking water and that is likely the cause of her positive result.[23] However, FINA ruled her evidence not conclusive enough to find that the drinking water was a likely source even though scientific studies were presented and Cox had no previous doping allegations.[24] This instance supports the idea that FINA’s sanctions are inconsistent. Yang ultimately was not faulted for hysterically smashing his samples without any clear explanation for why he did not need testing whereas Cox was severely suspended for a non-advantageous amount of the prohibited substance.


There appears to be an urgent need for the governing bodies to evaluate its sanctioning and arbitration processes for doping cases. Cox is one of many swimmers who have been wronged by FINA.[25] FINA may need to adjust its sanctioning protocols. Perhaps the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the overarching federation controlling FINA, needs to intervene. The IOC could evaluate FINA officials who decide the punishments for doping cases and limit those officials to those who decide on true merits of the case and do not have any biases.


Additionally, there appears to be a need for WADA and CAS to provide more uniform practices and requirements for all sport governing bodies. When FINA sanctioned Yang with a three month ban in 2014, Chinese authorities did not disclose the ban to WADA.[26] Many governments cannot be legally bound by WADA, so the agency is ultimately a facilitator of doping controls and testing programs for all international and national sport organizations.[27] While countries are not required to report doping cases to WADA, there are some consequences for not following best practice such as withholding financial support and education resources for doping control.[28]


Yang’s recent doping case has highlighted the lack of control that WADA has over certain sport agencies. The consequences for failing to follow best practices do not intimidate FINA as much as it does other agencies. Perhaps WADA needs to appropriately intervene and require uniform reporting protocols for all sports. Such protocols could include directed suspension lengths for different substances and amounts. This may mitigate the need for WADA to appeal cases to CAS.


Moreover, CAS may also need to evaluate its arbitration processes to ensure a fair decision-making process for all athletes. The arbitrators could be screened for any biases prior to arbitration and testimonies should be limited to addressing issues on the subject matter of the case.


Overall, the doping cases in the sport of swimming have unfortunately become more common and the sanctions placed on the athletes appear to be more unfair. With the Olympics approaching, there appears to be a need to evaluate doping control procedures with all governing bodies to ensure clean and fair competition.



References: [1] SwimSwam. Men’s World Records (LCM). Retrieved from https://swimswam.com/records/mens-world-records-lcm/

[2] Panja, T. (Dec. 23, 2020). Chinese Swimmer’s Doping Ban Is Lifted After Accusation of Racism.

Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/23/sports/olympics/sun-yang-china-doping.html

[3] OlympicTalk. (Feb. 28, 2020) Sun Yang banned 8 years in swimming doping case. Retrieved from https://olympics.nbcsports.com/2020/02/28/sun-yang-doping-ban-swimming-china/

[4] Hill, G. (Dec. 24, 2020). Chinese swimmer Sun Yang has eight-year doping ban overturned. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/12/24/sun-yang-doping-ban-overturned/

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Panja, supra.

[9] Hill, supra.

[10] Panja, supra.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Panja T. and Crouse, K. (Nov. 15. 2019). A Star Swimmer’s Doping Hearing Gets Lost in Translation. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/sports/sun-yang swimming.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article

[17] OlympicTalk, supra.

[18] Panja and Crouse, supra.

[19] Keith, B. (Jul. 20, 2018). 2017 World Champion Madisyn Cox Given 2-Year Doping Suspension. Retrieved from https://swimswam.com/2017-world-champion-madisyn-cox-given-2-year-doping-suspension/

[20] Id.

[21] Panja, supra.

[22] Keith, supra.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Panja and Crouse, supra.

[27] World Anti-Doping Agency: Governments. Retrieved from https://www.wada-ama.org/en/who-we-are/anti-doping-community/governments

[28] Id.


Photo: OlympicTalk. (Jul. 21, 2019). Mack Horton refuses to stand on medal podium with Sun Yang. Retrieved from https://olympics.nbcsports.com/2019/07/21/mack-horton-sun-yang-world-swimming-championships/