GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA—Mack Horton walked into the dining room at the athletes village and the applause began. It swelled into a standing ovation for the Australian swimmer after his personal protest against China’s Sun Yang at the world aquatics championships.
Horton refused to step onto the podium or shake Sun’s hand after losing to Sun in the 400-metre freestyle final on Sunday night.
“Gutsy move, for sure,” U.S. backstroker Matt Grevers said Monday.
FINA’s executive board met Monday in Gwangju to discuss Horton’s protest and decided to send a warning letter to Swimming Australia and to Horton.
“While FINA respects the principle of freedom of speech, it has to be conducted in the right context,” the board said in a statement.
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Horton is angry that Sun, who served a three-month doping suspension in 2014, is being allowed to compete in Gwangju before he faces a Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing in September that could potentially end his career.
The World Anti-Doping Agency is challenging a decision by FINA, swimming’s world governing body, merely to warn Sun over incidents during a doping control team’s attempts to take blood and urine samples at his home in China last September.
“I don’t feel like it really hurt Sun Yang,” Grevers said of Horton’s protest. “I think it just let him know that, ‘Hey, it’s a weird incident and until it gets uncovered, we don’t fully trust you.’”
Horton is the only swimmer to beat Sun in the 400 free in the last eight years, taking gold in the event at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the Aussie also refused to shake Sun’s hand. Horton went further at a news conference later, calling Sun a “drug cheat” to his face.
That prompted China’s swimming federation to demand an apology, but none was forthcoming.
With such history between the two, American Lilly King said other swimmers were waiting for the awards ceremony Sunday “to see what was going to happen.”
Horton stood behind the podium when given his silver medal. He didn’t join Sun and bronze medallist Gabriele Detti of Italy for the traditional photos on the top spot afterward.
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“I don’t think I need to say anything,” Horton said Sunday. “His actions and how it has been handled speaks louder than anything I could say.”
Sun said Sunday he was aware Horton has a problem with him.
“Disrespecting me was OK, but disrespecting China was unfortunate,” Sun said through a translator. “I feel sorry about that.”
King, an outspoken critic of doping, was in the dining hall when Horton arrived back at the village.
“It was pretty great to see the athletes united on his stance and supporting him, as well,” she said. “I don’t think anyone at FINA is going to stand up for the athletes, so the athletes have to stand up for themselves.”
Horton’s teammate, Mitch Larkin, voiced a familiar concern among swimmers about a clean playing field.
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“You can never be confident,” he said. “You’ve got to trust the authorities, but with what’s going on in sport these days it’s hard to be 100 per cent sure.”
Horton didn’t alert the Australian coaching staff of his podium plans in advance, according to head coach Jacco Verhaeren.
“I understand him very much,” the coach said. “You can only respect him for what he does.”
Detti told Italian media that Horton approached him before the medals ceremony and asked if he would be willing to stand behind rather than on the podium while receiving his award.
Detti declined, explaining that he worked hard to earn a medal and wanted to enjoy it.
None of the anti-Sun sentiment goes over well in China, where he is viewed as a star and his fans demand respect for him via social media. A large contingent of Chinese fans cheered and shouted as Sun made his victory parade around the pool. Banners featuring his face hung from the stands.
Larkin estimated that 99 per cent of swimmers at the meet back Horton.
“He’s not really standing alone,” Larkin said. “What he did was certainly brave and gutsy, and I have a lot of respect for him for doing that.”
Not everyone agreed with Horton, however.
“That’s his opinion, not mine,” said British swimmer James Guy, who described himself as a close friend of Horton’s.
Guy was the leading qualifier going into the 200 free semifinals Monday night; Sun was second fastest.
American backstroker Ryan Murphy said he didn’t consider Horton’s protest to be directed at Sun “but more so standing against FINA and WADA for their response to these things.”