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Sun Yang’s downfall highlights China’s failure to develop individual stars

Sun Yang of China during day one of the FINA Champions Swim Series 2020 on January 18, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Emmanuel Wong/Getty Images)

When the Court of Arbitration for Sports handed an eight-year ban to the six-time Olympic medallist Sun Yang last Friday, for failure to cooperate with doping sample collection, there was an uproar on Chinese social media.

Millions sent spiteful curses against Western double standards and urged the Chinese national hero to appeal. “China will never accept this,” vowed an angry post on Weibo. “Sun Yang’s rivals in Australia, Korea, Japan, United States, and UK are only to cheer their wins in Tokyo Olympics in guilt.”

Chinese people refuse to see Sun Yang fall from grace for an obvious reason. As the first Chinese male athlete to win Olympic swimming gold, the 28-year-old would be one of China’s surest hopes – for at least two medals – at the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“The outlook for China in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is already bleak enough. It is hardly possible to defend a place in the top-three on the medal board,” says Dr Lingling Liu, managing director of China Sports Business Consulting. “The ban of Sun Yang almost wipes out any possibility. China’s best hope is to reach for fifth position but it will lag behind the host country Japan.”

Given the nationalist resentment between the two nations, the prospect of trailing Japan at the Olympics would be a stiff blow to Chinese pride.

But for the Chinese sports hierarchy, the biggest ramification is the loss of its most valuable individual star.

Since 2012, when 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang crumbled out of the London Olympics, Sun Yang has been the male lead of Chinese sports. Forbes China estimated his commercial value at CNY30m (€3.9m/$4.3m) in 2013 and Titan Sports at CNY69m in 2017. In early 2019, ESPN ranked him as the 43rd highest-paid athlete worldwide.

Sun’s difficult image

Despite this, Sun Yang holds no deals with the world’s top-tier brands. His biggest deal is with Chinese sports apparel manufacturer 361°. “Sun Yang and people around him are known for being difficult to work with,” says an unnamed source at Tencent, which struck a short-lived agent deal with Sun in 2017.

Sun’s mother, Yang Ming – a former volleyball player and now a professor with the PE Department of the Hangzhou Normal University in Zhejiang Province – is his de facto agent.

Court of Arbitration for Sport secretary general Matthieu Reeb arrives to read the sentence of the Court on the case of Chinese Olympic swimming champion Sun Yang for missing a drug test, on February 28, 2020 in Lausanne. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

“Her decisions were constantly changing, and she questioned every decision made by the agencies. It is simply impossible to work with them,” adds the Tencent source.

Upon the news of the CAS ban, Yang posted on social media to attribute the loss of the case to the incompetent lawyer appointed by the Chinese Swimming Association and an equally incompetent interpreter.

Sun has long carried a poor public image. On top of his three-month slap-on-the-wrist ban for testing positive for Trimetazidine in 2014, he has trailed a string of incidents including drink driving, sponsor presentation disputes and publicly humiliating competitors.

He has often tapped Chinese nationalism in response: in 2019 he told Mack Horton, an Australian swimmer who refused to stand with him on the podium at the Fina World Championships, “you do not have to respect me, but you must respect China.” In return, Chinese media has been tight-lipped over any infractions.

But there are signs the state is giving up on him. On the day of the CAS verdict, Hu Xijin, chief editor of the Global Times, a political tabloid under the People’s Daily, posted his opinion that “the issues facing Sun Yang should not be linked with the glory and humiliation of our country”. Hu, through his feisty social posts, has acted as the non-official spokesman of the government. His opinion was understood as Team China’s preparedness to abandon Sun Yang.

But who comes next?

It will not be easy for Chinese sport to call forth another talented athlete to replace him.

Sun is often compared with three other top Chinese athletes of the 21st century, namely Li Na, the two-time tennis grand slam winner, Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets basketball player, and Liu Xiang, who won Olympic gold in 2004.

But the comparison leads to disheartening conclusions: those who strayed furthest from the Chinese sports systems achieved the greatest success.

None of Team China’s other stars can step straight into Sun’s shoes. Table tennis player Zhang Jike ex-NBA basketballer Yi Jianlian are contenders, but both are past their career primes. On women’s side, two contenders are at opposite ends of their careers: Feng Shanshan, 30, the first player from China to play in the LPGA Tour, and American-born Eileen Gu, 16, who was naturalized to represent China at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in skiing events.

It is open for debate whether the Chinese sports administrative system has mismanaged its strategies to develop and sustain world-class individuals. In his reflection to Sun Yang’s crisis, Professor Yi Jiandong, an Olympic expert at Wenzhou University, laments that China sports system is plagued by complacency, bigotry, collective unconsciousness and emotional reactions to external stimulants.

Sun Yang of China after competing in the Men’s 200m Freestyle Final during the day one of FINA Champions Swim Series 2020-Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

“For a top athlete as talented as Sun Yang, there needs to be a professional network to look after other issues for him than swimming for medals,” he says. “Those are scientific research, competitions, finances, businesses, legal matters, medical and health, public, media, and government relations. You name it.”

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