At first, people were confused as to why Mack Horton was kneeling.
Alongside Italian bronze medallist Gabriele Detti and Chinese gold medallist Sun Yang, the 23-year-old Australian looked for a moment like he was resting on his knees, his face stern and unmoving.
But Horton was not kneeling. He was standing behind his second place podium at the swimming World Championships in South Korea – refusing to step onto it. To do so, would be to stand beside 27-year-old Sun, a man he called a “drug cheat” after beating him at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Horton did not shake hands with Sun or pose for photographs with his silver medal. He stood back, his jaw clenched and his chin up.
He was furious.
Olympic Gold Medallist Mack Horton is making no secret of his bitter feud with China’s Sun Yang, refusing to share the podium with him at the World Championships. @MimiRoseBecker #9News pic.twitter.com/a5UHP77cey
— Nine News Adelaide (@9NewsAdel) July 22, 2019
And while Australia understands why, there is a larger question looming about whether Horton’s protest was appropriate at an official ceremony.
In May 2014, Sun tested positive to the drug trimetazidine, then considered a stimulant. It had been prohibited by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) four months earlier. He was banned from competing for three months and stripped of his win at the Chinese nationals.
Sun claimed that he was prescribed the drug by a doctor for his heart palpitations, which he’d been suffering from for six years, and did not know it had been added to the list of banned substances.
The WADA found that, “Sun proved with sufficient evidence that he did not intent to cheat, which helped reduce the ban to three months”.