Rio 2016: Chinese attack Australia's gold medal swimmer Mack Horton after 'drug cheat' comment about rival Sun Yang

Horton called his rival, Sun Yang, a 'drug cheat' following the Australian's victory in the 400m freestyle final after Yang failed a drug test in 2014

Ian Herbert
Rio de Janeiro
Sunday 07 August 2016 14:52 BST
Chinese media and swimming fans have attacked Mack Horton for his comments in the post 400m freestyle final press conference
Chinese media and swimming fans have attacked Mack Horton for his comments in the post 400m freestyle final press conference (Getty)

Chinese media have turned on Australia's 400m freestyle gold medallist Mack Horton, claiming he “taunted” their own star Sun Yang by calling him a drug cheat to his face in the post-Olympic final press conference.

Responding to questions from Chinese journalists in the press conference, Horton, who was sitting next to Yang, repeated his pre-race claim that Yang was a cheat. "I used the word 'drug cheat' because he tested positive," Horton declared. "I just have a problem with him testing positive and still competing."

Horton – who overcame the huge one-second lead that British swimmer James Guy had established after four lengths of the final - was clearly determined to raise the question of Sun’s three-month doping ban in 2014. He declared as he passed through the mixed zone late on Sunday night that he was thinking about the fact he had raised the issue, even as he entered the final 50m of the race.

“The last 50m I was thinking about what I said and what would happen if he gets me here - I didn't have a choice but to beat him," he said.

The rivals failed to acknowledge each other in the pool immediately after the race, though they did shake hands for the cameras during the medal ceremony. That was before the press conference.

Mack Horton and Sun Yang did shake hands during the medal ceremony
Mack Horton and Sun Yang did shake hands during the medal ceremony (Getty)

Yang responded by accusing Horton of playing mind games: "On the competition stage, every athlete deserves to be respected and there's no need to use these sort of cheap tricks to affect each other."

Yang burst into tears while attempting to give an interview in the media mixed zone after the race, footage of which went swiftly viral on Chinese social media. Within hours, the hashtag "Sun Yang Don't Cry" amassed more than 47 million views on China's Twitter-like Weibo within hours.

But Chinese viewers also directed vitriol at Horton for his comments. Chinese online news portals including Sina and Tencent described the Australian's "drug cheat" comments as "taunts" and said he was classless. Chinese fans have also bombarded Horton's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, demanding he apologise to Yang.

Horton has suggested that his discussion of Yang’s light drugs ban – which left many swimmers convinced that he should not be here – was part of an attempt to get into the head of his main rival.

Yang has a reputation for doing that himself. There was an altercation between him and Horton last week when he appeared to splash and attempt to distract the new Australian star as they trained together in the competition pool.

Yang, who won the 400m and 1500m gold in London, was also involved in an altercation with fellow swimmer Larissa Oliveira at last year's World Championships in Kazan, where he was accused of trying to kick and elbow the Brazilian after an argument in the warm-up pool.

Sun was asked in his press conference how criticism like Horton’s had affected him.

"The training has always been hard, but I was young. Now I'm more mature and I know how to handle the failures and how to deal with other people's opinions. This experience is very helpful for my further development because I will stop swimming one day. But what I have experienced will stay in my memory.

"The main pressure for the gold medal is not from the delegation but from inside the Chinese swimming team. But I want to do my job. As you may know, my training, my healthcare, and my doctors are all supported by them so I really want to win a gold medal with my own efforts.”

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