The most hated person at the World Swimming Championships

GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - JULY 23: Sun Yang (R) of China speaks with Duncan Scott of Great Britain during the medal ceremony for the Men's 200m Freestyle Final on day three of the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships at Nambu International Aquatics Centre on July 23, 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
/ Credit: GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - JULY 23: Sun Yang (R) of China speaks with Duncan Scott of Great Britain during the medal ceremony for the Men's 200m Freestyle Final on day three of the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships at Nambu International Aquatics Centre on July 23, 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

As it turns out, the Sun Yang drama covered in last week’s column was just the start.

A multitude of new high-profile post-race clashes at the ongoing World Swimming Championships in South Korea has been keeping the Chinese star in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

First up was a rematch of the 2016 Olympic 400m freestyle final, when Australian Mack Horton edged out Sun for the gold after calling him a “drugs cheat” in the build-up. In Gwangju last weekend, Sun got his revenge as the top two places were reversed, but the drama started at the podium ceremony, with Horton refusing to stand on the podium or pose for photos with Sun afterwards in protest of Sun’s checkered history and pending appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

That snub prompted two very different reactions.

While Horton was reportedly cheered back into the athletes’ village with a standing ovation, Chinese netizens hurled online abuse at Horton, just as they had done three years ago.

“Disrespecting me was OK, but disrespecting China was unfortunate,” was Sun’s take on proceedings after the ceremony.

Horton, of course, did nothing of the sort — it was a purely personal protest — but the argument that if you insult one Chinese person, you insult all 1.4 billion Chinese people, all overseas Chinese, the country of China and its government, is a well-established trope of which the Party is a master.

Australian journalist Tracey Holmes, who has worked with and for Chinese broadcaster CCTV for many years (though is currently with the Australian Broadcast Corporation), leapt to Sun’s defense with this piece in which she genuinely questioned whether other swimmers would also have smashed a vial containing their own blood sample with a hammer if they thought the testing agents weren’t exactly following procedure.

Clue: no.

She was backed up by former CEO of Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority Richard Ings, who towed the “innocent until proven guilty line” and called for his countryman Horton to be given a “hefty fine” for his podium antics, in comments gleefully picked up by Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

Side note to Xinhua: it’s a little disingenuous to title the piece “Australian professionals criticize double standards towards world champion Sun Yang” when the first “Australian professional” cited is Sun Yang’s actual coach.

Then we had British swimmer Duncan Scott, who came third in the 200m freestyle as Sun won another gold.

He, too, refused to stand with Sun on the podium, and the pair actually clashed after the ceremony, with Sun allegedly telling Scott, “You’re a loser. I’m a winner.” (Top image.)

Factually correct, yes; classy, no.

Most recently, Sun was snubbed by Brazilian swimmer João de Lucca after the heats of the 4 x 200m freestyle relay, with Sun’s outstretched handshake pointedly left hanging by the Brazilian.

The whole thing is a mess.

As mentioned in this excellent piece, one of the most uncomfortable truths about Sun is that he may well be innocent of doping.

But that’s not to say that the vast majority of professional swimmers don’t have legitimate grievances over Sun’s presence in South Korea.

Unfortunately, the whole case is further muddied by people trying to frame the battle as between East and West, with some less desirable nationalistic elements thrown in for good measure.

But it’s all missing the point.

There was a private email thread bouncing around this week between some of the world’s best-known swimming coaches and the target of their wrath was not Sun, but FINA.

FINA, swimming’s world governing body, has palpably lost the trust of the very athletes it’s supposed to represent, with swimmers now feeling compelled to take matters into their own hands.

When it takes FINA many months to schedule a hearing over Sun’s smashed vial case, but it’s able to reprimand Horton and Scott over their podium protests within hours, it’s clear that their priorities have become very warped indeed.


If the feelings of the Chinese people were well and truly hurt this week over the Sun Yang affair, Manchester City also let it be known that they were mightily offended over some words coming out of China.

It all started with this piece from Xinhua — or, more specifically, from British sportswriter Jonty Dixon, who opines on their behalf — which outlined how City, in contrast to the other three visiting English Premier League teams, had largely ignored their Chinese fans and treated Chinese media as second-class citizens.

The claims ring true, and they also rang loud enough for the City PR team — who hadn’t bothered to make the trip to China — to hit back with full force this week.

But when City played in Hong Kong to a half-empty stadium just days later, it’s evident that all their talk of creating a “truly global football footprint” isn’t resonating with the fans.


What on earth is Gareth Bale doing?

The Welsh soccer star has been rumored to be on the verge of trading in Real Madrid — where he won 13 trophies (including four UEFA Champions League titles) in six season years — for Jiangsu Suning, which has yet to win a top-flight league title in China in its 61 years of existence.

Normally, these sort of transfer stories surface with minimal sourcing and absolutely no credibility, either as a way for a tabloid sports hacks to fill some pages or for a player’s agent to drive a player’s price up by sowing the seeds of phantom interest.

But Bale’s departure has all but been confirmed by Real Madrid coach Zinedane Zidane, and with no other club looking able to get anywhere near his current wage bill, attention has turned to China.

To give a recent parallel in terms of the standard of play, Nico Yennaris played last season for mid-table English Championship (i.e. second tier) side Brentford. This year, he’s one of the best players for Beijing Guoan, who sit atop the Chinese Super League (CSL) and has earned his call-up to the Chinese national team, for whom he recently became eligible to play.

In other words, the standard in the CSL, while slowly improving, is miles away from the top European leagues.

It’s still unknown whether this on-again, off-again transfer will in fact materialize, but, frankly speaking, if Bale couldn’t settle in Madrid after five years, why would anyone think he would be able to settle in Nanjing?

UPDATE: Per the Telegraph, Bale apparently will not be heading to China:

Telegraph Sport understands Bale’s move to Suning – where he would have earned over £1 million a week and been the highest-paid player in the world – has broken down over demands made by Real Madrid, who are seeking a transfer fee for the 30-year-old.

Real’s president Florentino Perez is also believed to have blocked the move as he believes Bale – who cost a then world record fee of £85 million from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013 – is too valuable a player to let go on the cheap.


AP Photo/Stew Milne

Almost entirely lost in the sports news cycle this week is the fact that tennis sensation Li Na was welcomed into the sport’s Hall of Fame, a fitting honor to mark her trailblazing achievements.

In addition to winning the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open singles titles, Li became almost as well known for her hilarious victory speeches, which included everything from blaming her husband for snoring on the night before matches to telling her agent to make her rich.

Sadly, though, her HOF acceptance speech was not a worthy addition to the list.

Her opening line, “I will try to make my speech, like my name, as short as ever,” brought a smile to the lips, but that was about it.

However, with Li’s lasting legacy already having an impact on the next generation of female Chinese tennis players seeking to follow in her footsteps, it won’t be long before another player from China is challenging for major titles.


“Highlight” of the Week:

This week’s sporting highlight was a curious case of imitation, as Chinese fans of Italian soccer rivals Juventus and Inter Milan clashed as their heroes met in Nanjing. With Italian ultras known to be among the most violent in the world, it was unfortunate that their Chinese counterparts sought to emulate the worst of them instead of the best. While no full-scale punch up was reported, bottles were thrown in the clip below.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.