This time, the hammer dropped on Sun Yang.
Long the target of anti-doping crusaders, the Chinese swimming star received a stunning eight-year ban from a Swiss court — the maximum penalty and one that effectively ends the 28-year-old's career — for a vial-smashing encounter with drug testers.
While the ruling Friday seems a bit excessive, it figures to send a much-needed message to others who would try to enhance their performance through illicit means with the Tokyo Olympics less than five months away.
It was cheered by rival swimmers, who have griped for years that world governing body FINA kept looking the other way when it came to punishing a high-profile athlete in one of its key markets.
"I fully respect and support the decision," said Britain's Duncan Scott, one of two swimmers who refused to share the medal podium with Sun at last year's world championships in South Korea. "I believe in clean sport and a level playing field for all athletes.'
South African star Chad Le Clos, who finished second to Sun in the 200-meter freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics, welcomed the ruling but said it came far too late to help those who may have been cheated out of their rightful place in the sport — himself included.
“There's a snowball effect,” Le Clos said in an interview with CNN. "At the end of the day, you're killing generations of swimmers by not punishing these drug cheats."
Le Clos believes he deserves the gold medal from 2016, but added that he really feels for swimmers such as Britain's James Guy, who finished fourth in the Rio final to just miss out on a medal.
"If James Guy had gotten bronze and a podium, it could've changed his life," Le Clos said.
No one comes out of this whole sordid affair looking worse than FINA, the inept overseer of the sport. For years, it worked overtime to ensure that Sun never faced the full wrath of anti-doping rules.
Back in 2014, Sun served a three-month ban after testing positive for a stimulant that was banned at the time. The ridiculously light penalty, imposed by Chinese authorities, was not even announced until after it ended. Sun didn't miss any major meets, and FINA went right along with that travesty of justice.
Then, in September 2018, drug testers turned up at Sun's home in the early morning hours to collect a blood sample. The swimmer and his handlers questioned whether the testers had the proper credentials. A brouhaha erupted, leading Sun's mother to instruct a security guard to smash the vial with a hammer, thereby rendering it useless for testing.
FINA, again showing its loyalty to Sun and even more to those millions of dollars he helps generate as one of China's most popular athletes, tried to sweep to whole incident under the rug with a warning — a decision that was beyond outrageous for a swimmer who already had a doping violation on his record.
Sun was allowed to compete at the 2019 worlds, where he won gold medals in the 200 and 400 freestyle but faced strong push-back from his rivals.
Australia's Mack Horton, runner-up in the 400, refused to take the medal stand alongside Sun. Scott did the same after tying for the bronze in the 200, leading to a dramatic confrontation with Sun as they walked away from the podium.
"You loser," Sun said defiantly, pointing a finger at Scott. “I'm winner.”
While Sun criticized the podium protests as disrespectful to his country, many athletes came to the defense of those who took the bold step of not stepping up.
“I don’t think anyone at FINA is going to stand up for the athletes, so the athletes have to stand up for themselves," said American breaststroke champion Lilly King, who outspokenly complained about having to compete at the 2016 Olympics against Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who had previously served a 16-month ban for doping.
Le Clos said all of Sun's results since 2014 should be scrutinized — and perhaps stripped — but the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport declined to go that far in its ruling.
It's clear that FINA has no intention of taking away any of Sun's titles, though at the very least he shouldn't be allowed to keep his two golds from last year's worlds.
Sun had no business even being allowed to compete at the biggest swimming event outside of the Olympics. The fact that he tested clean during the competition is a moot point.
Sun vowed to appeal the eight-year ban to Switzerland’s supreme court, but he has little chance of getting it overturned. The high court can only consider narrow procedural grounds, and three other federal appeals by Sun's lawyers have already been dismissed.
We can all be thankful that another appeal did pay off. It was the World Anti-Doping Agency that stepped in to challenge FINA's decision to merely issue a warning against Sun, leading to a rare public hearing before CAS.
The 10-hour proceeding, conducted in November, showed Sun being evasive at times and was hampered by major translation issues between Chinese and English.
Finally, the three-judge panel delivered its own hammer blow with a unanimous decision Friday.
This time, it was Sun's career and legacy that were smashed.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com
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