Australia can protest drug cheats. But we might want to look in our own backyard first.

For Mack Horton, cheating looked pretty black and white one week ago.

His competitor Sun Yang, who stepped onto the podium to accept his gold medal was not a man who had a record of cheating, but a man who was a cheat. When the person in question lives more than nine thousand kilometres away, it’s easy to convince oneself there really is no difference.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Horton dismissed Sun as a “drug cheat” – a man who had no place whatsoever in the sport. It was a position most of the Australian swim team accepted. Back in 2014, Sun was suspended for three months after taking trimediazine, a substance that had been banned a few months prior. The six foot seven swim champion said he was prescribed the drug for heart palpitations – a claim the World Anti Doping Association accepted.

“Sun proved with sufficient evidence that he did not intend to cheat, which helped reduce the ban to three months,” WADA said at the time.

What does it take to be an Australian sporting hero? Post continues after video. 

But Horton wasn’t interested in dissecting Sun’s intentions. There were no shades of grey.

Then, as Dawn Fraser will tell you, in 2018 Sun “smashed his blood vials” after a random drug test conducted at his home.

That isn’t, however, quite what happened.

What we know for sure is that three officials knocked on Sun’s door at 11pm one night in September last year. He let them in. They took a blood sample, while Sun asked them – which he is entirely within his rights to do – if he could see their accreditation. Only one of the three had any sort of documentation.


It is reported he called his lawyers and his coach.

There are few men who know as well as Sun does that the term ‘drug cheat’ tends to stick. If his bloodwork was tampered with, that could very well signal the end of his career.

As the conflict escalated, the officials began recording Sun without his consent, in the privacy of his home.

After more than fours hours he was advised, according to reports, to destroy the sample. His security guard, not Sun himself, smashed the blood vial with a hammer.

Perhaps it was because within it there were traces of banned substances. Perhaps it was because he did not trust the individuals who had procured it.

We simply do not know.

An investigation was launched into exactly what happened that night. FINA, the International Swimming Federation, accepted the actions of Sun, finding no wrongdoing on the part of his team.

WADA wasn’t so sure. They’re currently appealing the finding to the Court of Arbitration for Sport – a move they’re entitled to make.

That’s why Sun dived into the pool at the World Championships in South Korea.

If, as we proclaim to believe in the West, one is innocent until proven guilty, then Horton’s protest didn’t entirely make sense.

Sun had been found guilty once, and he’d accepted his suspension. The investigation currently pending could end with Sun being completely exonerated.

When Horton stood on his block, rolling his shoulders back, and adjusting his goggles, he was accepting the terms of the race. He was accepting who had been cleared to compete.

Interestingly, in the past when Horton has beaten Sun, at the Rio Olympics for example, there was no protest. What if Horton had been awarded gold at the World Championships last week, and Sun silver? Maybe drug cheats are fine. Until they beat you.

With that said, Horton ought to be respected for his principles. His simple, non-violent, peaceful act, was the springboard for an international conversation about doping in sport.

He can’t have known how unfortunate that would be for a member of his own team.

As Horton stood resolute last week, his lips pursed and his chin high, the CEO of Swimming Australia, Leigh Russell, held her head in her hands.


“Australians don’t accept drugs in sport,” Horton communicated with his gesture, a point echoed by dozens of Australian athletes.

We didn’t know yet about Shayna Jack. Russell did.

The 20-year-old Australian swimmer had been found with traces of ligandrol in her urine, a black market muscle builder. She fervently argues she did not take it knowingly. She insists she is not a drug cheat. Swimming Australia is standing by her.

While Jack is an athlete whose urine returned a positive result for banned substances, Sun is a “doping cheat”. Jack’s supplements might have been laced. The labels might have omitted certain ingredients. Her coach or manager might have given them to her unwillingly. But there’s one thing Australians seem fairly sure of: Jack did not intend to cheat. 

And it’s the intention that matters! A poor, 20-year-old woman, just starting her career, and one unfortunate mistake might undo it all.

Those nuances have been entirely overlooked in the case of Sun.

The first time Horton was asked to comment on Jack’s positive result, he refused to answer. Strange, given that less than a week prior, he couldn’t have been more resolute in his position against drugs in sport.

The second time he said: “I applaud the decision to immediately withdraw the athlete in question from further competition until this matter is resolved”.

Those final five words are telling.

Jack faces the possibility of a ‘resolution’. Sun certainly wasn’t afforded the same opportunity.

There’s no benefit of the doubt when the ‘cheat’ is on the other team.

But China have a history of doping! some have yelled from the sidelines. They have form!

Well, unfortunately, so do we.

Paul Gallen accepted his doping ban for peptides in 2014. He’s not a drug cheat, though. He’s a man who made a mistake and deserved a second chance.

We remember Gallen as the captain of the New South Wales State of Origin team, the Vice Captain of Australia, and leading the Sharks to Premiership victory in 2016.


And then there was Shane Warne, a name synonymous with a lot of things, and none of them drug related.

In 2003, then 33-year-old Warne consumed a banned diuretic, a substance often used to mask traces of performance enhancing drugs. He said his mother gave it to him. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t.

He was suspended for 12 months, but somehow that mark on his record has been almost entirely erased. He was one of the greatest cricketers Australia has ever seen. He was the face of a hair loss ad. He dated Liz Hurley and even went into the jungle on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Drug cheat doesn’t feature on his resume.

Following the news of Jack’s positive sample, Sam Dastyari tweeted: “As social media smashes to bits Shayna Jack – let’s try to remember there is a 20 year old there somewhere who’s whole life has been destroyed. At the end of the day this is only sport…. and she’s a real person … who shouldn’t be treated like a war criminal”. 

And he’s right.

Cheating isn’t a war crime. And maybe it’s all a lot more complex than we’d like to think.

If only we could extend the same empathy and nuance to a six foot seven competitor from China.