Sun Yang, a former Olympic champion and one of China’s most celebrated athletes, had his eight-year ban from swimming suddenly overturned Wednesday by Switzerland’s federal court, which upheld a challenge questioning the neutrality of one of the panelists who had issued the penalty.
The Swiss federal court’s decision was rare encroachment on the body that issued the suspension, the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport. Its decision means Sun, whose competitive career was effectively ended by the doping ban, is free to resume swimming until his case is heard by a different panel at CAS.
Sun, 29, a six-time Olympic medalist and the first Chinese man to win a swimming gold medal at the Games, has waged a multiyear battle with the World Anti-Doping Agency to preserve his eligibility to swim in international competition.
WADA brought a complaint against Sun to the court last year after swimming’s international governing body declined to penalize him for refusing to cooperate with three antidoping officials who had traveled to his home in China to retrieve blood and urine samples. The court, after a hearing last November that was marred by translation issues, agreed with the antidoping agency’s underlying claim that Sun had violated rules governing efforts to tamper with doping procedures.
WADA now will have to argue its case against Sun, China’s most famous athlete, all over again.
“WADA has been informed of the decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal to uphold the revision application filed by Chinese swimmer Sun Yang and to set aside the 20 February 2020 award of a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Panel,” the global antidoping body said in an emailed statement.
The judgment, WADA said, was not based on the merits of the case, but on a challenge against the chairman of the three-person CAS panel, the former Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini. Sun’s lawyers had appealed to the Swiss federal court after gathering what they said were public comments by Frattini that included anti-Chinese sentiments. News media reports earlier this year had highlighted Twitter posts from Frattini’s account expressing his disdain at examples of animal cruelty in China, including at least one in which he used a derogatory term.
Frattini could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the decision, the accusations against him or his social media posts.
The decision is likely to lead to yet more frustration inside the global antidoping movement, which last week saw a different CAS panel significantly reduce the penalties issued to Russia for running a yearslong, state-backed doping scheme. Wednesday’s ruling will raise new questions about the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s competence in handling high-profile cases.
Sun’s hearing at the sports court was the first in more than a decade to be heard in public, and descended into confusion and acrimony amid major translation difficulties between Sun, his witnesses and the three member-panel, all Europeans without any Chinese language experience. It is unclear if the new hearing will take place in public, but WADA said Wednesday night that it would retry the case.
“WADA will take steps to present its case robustly again when the matter returns to the CAS Panel, which will be chaired by a different president,” WADA said.
The eight-year doping ban imposed in February was the first imposed on a Chinese sports figure as influential as Sun, who is a national hero on a par with the country’s former basketball star Yao Ming.
The case is biggest Chinese doping scandal since more than 30 swimmers from China were caught using banned substances in the 1990s, and 40 of its 300 athletes were withdrawn by the Chinese authorities from competing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. At the time, news reports suggested the athletes had returned suspicious blood-test results.
Sun had long drawn suspicion from fellow swimmers because of whispers that he was doping — he was suspended for three months by the Chinese swimming authorities in 2014 after he tested positive for a recently banned prescription drug — and several rivals verbally sparred with him at the world championships last July or refused to stand on the medals podium with him after races.
Sun’s fans reacted with fury at the news of his suspension. Social media platforms were flooded with messages of support for the swimmer and anger at the decision, which many described as anti-Chinese and designed to harm the country.
Sun vowed to clear his name, even though his options appeared to be limited. The Swiss federal court only has standing to hear claims about procedural irregularities, and not the substance of the cases brought before it.
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