Mob rule is no way to make a stand

GWANGJU, South Korea — After the events here this week involving the Chinese star Sun Yang, here’s hoping that both Ryan Lochte and Madisyn Cox not only make the 2020 U.S. Olympic swim team but, moreover, go on to win medals.

Then we can see whether the sanctimonious, self-righteously moralistic and, moreover, self-appointed doping athlete police apply their same rigid and inappropriate black-and-white standards to Americans tagged for “doping” — Lochte, eligible again Wednesday after 14 months off for a rules violation tied to an IV drip, and Cox, who got six months for tainted multivitamins.

Or — and let’s be real — if there’s something more. 

You’d be hard-pressed not to smell the whiff of colonialism, imperialism and racism at work involving an athlete from China. Imagine, if you will, the outrage across all 50 states, red and blue, if had been an American who got snubbed on the medals stand, as Sun Yang did by athletes from Australia and Great Britain. As Sun Yang said, “Disrespecting me is OK, but disrespecting China was very unfortunate and I feel sorry about that.”

On Weibo, the People’s Daily — the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party — said, in part, “Sports should be purely sports. It’s not for someone who wants to make a splash. It’s not for someone to make trouble out of nothing, to be deliberately provocative. Let sports return to a normal state. Shame on them.”

If Sun Yang is shown to be liable of a doping violation, he deserves what he gets.

Until then, here is what he deserves — the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence.

This is what is so wrong with these shameful medals-stand displays here this week, bound to be the big-picture takeaway of the 2019 swimming world championships, and the encouragement of the athletes who purportedly are making a stand, first the Australian Mack Horton, then the Briton Duncan Scott, at Sun Yang’s expense. Horton declined to share the podium after finishing second to Sun Yang in the 400 freestyle; in the 200 free, Scott congratulated silver medalist Katsuhiro Matsumoto of Japan and Russia’s Martin Malyutin, who finished in a third-place tie with the British swimmer, but did not similarly shake Sun Yang’s hand. 

At the men’s 400 freestyle medals ceremony // Getty Images

At the men’s 400 freestyle medals ceremony // Getty Images

The scene af the men’s 200 free medals ceremony // Getty Images

The scene af the men’s 200 free medals ceremony // Getty Images

When you don’t shake another man’s hand in such a setting, that is an expression of self-professed moral superiority. Of better-than. 

That’s not making a stand. 

In such a context, to shun another man is a deliberate act meant to incite, rooted in raw emotion without resort to process or fact. It’s an expression of mob rule, plain and simple, and that is horrific.

Consider this quote from the British breaststroke champion Adam Peaty, referring to Sun Yang, reported by Reuters, printed in the Guardian: “He should be asking himself now should he really be in sport when the people were booing him …

“… If the fans aren’t wanting him [Sun] I don’t even know why he’s here.”

This position underscores in its naked simplicity precisely why, as a society, we don’t let boos and the passion of the pitchfork-carrying mob dictate justice — and instead, why we have institutions, why those institutions rely on procedure, why individuals deserve due process and why facts can be such stubborn things.

Besides, those words are just dumb. Sun Yang has oodles of fans. And it’s obvious why he’s here: to compete, and to try to win.

Further, the rank hypocrisy of those who would seek to drive Sun Yang away is belied by the case of Thomas Fraser-Holmes, the two-time Olympian from Australia who is due to swim Sunday in the men’s 400 IM, the heat sheets showing him in lane 2 in heat 5.

Fraser-Holmes is back after a 12-month ban issued in 2017 for missing three random drug tests. Is he a “doper”? Would the likes of Mack Horton or Duncan Scott snub Thomas Fraser-Holmes on the medals stand? Why is Adam Peaty not calling for preemptive expulsion?

““I just don’t see them for a year, but I still get texts, they know I made a mistake, I haven’t done anything on purpose,” Fraser-Holmes said in an October 2017 newspaper story, referring to his Australian national teammates.

In its story Tuesday, The New York Times also made obvious the imperialist and colonialist notions at issue, leading into this paragraph after a reference to Horton and Sun from the U.S. swimmer Lilly King, who has been outspoken about doping issues:

“Whether that is true no longer seems to matter to many top swimmers, especially those from the United States, Australia and Britain. Sun was just a toddler in 1994 when 10 Chinese swimmers tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. China was subsequently banned from the 1995 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, and the incident created a lingering veil of suspicion in the West.”

As if the United States, Australia and Britain are the only places in the world that matter.

Further — if Sun Yang was just a toddler, why the relevance?

If we’re going to dredge up doping incidents from the past, it’s worth noting that every nation has — well, a past. In 1983, when officials began using the testosterone/epitestosterone screen for the first time and 11 weightlifters, among others, got busted, 12 members of the U.S. track and field team suddenly packed their bags and flew home rather than risk getting drug-tested. Sports Illustrated would call it “one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of amateur sports in this country,” meaning the United States.

Did that create a veil of suspicion that lingered elsewhere?

How about — from 1999 through 2005, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France by cheating like crazy?

Oh, it’s only swimming we’re talking about here? As the New York Times began its story: “A doping cloud has long hung over this sport and one of the world’s best swimmers,” meaning Sun Yang. 

For the record, Sun Yang has one strike on his record. 

And so does Madisyn Cox, who at the 2017 world championships in Budapest won gold as part of the U.S. women’s 4x200 freestyle relay and bronze in the 200 IM. 

And they’re for the exact same thing, a stimulant called trimetazidine.

Not a steroid. A stimulant. 

She’s not here in Gwangju. He is, obviously. He did three months for the stimulant five years ago. A hearing awaits on another matter. Last September, testers came to Sun Yang’s home. The scene turned chaotic. According to official documents reported in the media, Sun Yang used his phone as a flashlight as a bodyguard smashed a vial of Sun Yang’s blood. Sun Yang claims the testers were not qualified and, as well, they were secretly photographing and videoing him. A FINA panel cleared Sun Yang of any violation, saying testers failed to provide appropriate paperwork per international test protocols. WADA is now appealing. 

This is what has some athletes so riled up — and it is assuredly the case that in doping matters, there can be so much emotion that the facts can get lost or misconstrued beyond recognition.

Let’s pause here to recall that Floyd Landis launched the Floyd Fairness Fund and wrote an entire book, Positively False, about his 2006 Tour de France ride and here we turn to the Atlantic’s description: “… in which the author Loren Mooney helped him,” meaning Landis, “explain his miraculous Stage 17 ride and his cycling success much as the journalist Sally Jenkins had done for Armstrong in his equally ironically titled biography, It’s Not About the Bike. Both narratives now read more like fiction.”

Under threat of criminal prosecution, as the magazine also recounts, Landis ultimately agreed to pay back the $478,354 he raised from donors, on false pretenses, for his defense.

Landis was ultimately proven to have cheated, and yet until the process was allowed to play itself out, until the facts were presented in a calm and rational manner, what mattered to a great many people was the shouting. 

That’s not OK. 

That’s why these medals stands episodes here this week are not OK. 

They represent the very real threat of the mob. 

No one is saying — not for a second — that athletes don’t have or should not have freedom of speech. But there is an appropriate time, place and manner for such speech and, beyond, a reckoning for allegations that can’t be backed up. 

Otherwise, what we are asking for is a repeat of the sorrowful chapter involving the British track and field sprinter Dwain Chambers, banned for two years after testing positive in 2003 for the steroid THG as part of the BALCO scandal.

When Chambers mounted a comeback, as the columnist Tim Black would recount in a piece in the outlet Spiked, the Daily Mail shouted, “So drug cheats do win.’ The Guardian: “Aspiring youngsters deserve a better role model.’ A European track and field meet managers’ official said, “These people cause so much damage, it cannot be forgiven.” The British Olympic Association tried, and failed, to ban Chambers for life.

This sort of hysteria is absurd. And pointless. 

Better we should all learn from the British sprinter Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake. When Chambers announced earlier this year his intent to run at the British indoor championships — he hadn’t run for the national team in five years — Mitchell-Blake, who ran the anchor leg on Britain’s gold medal-winning 4x100 team at the 2017 world championships, said, “I’m comfortable racing against anyone who is in the seven lanes beside me.

“Everyone has a past and everyone has a future. I’m not here to judge. I’m here to race.”

— With reporting from Yuhan Chen of Seoul National University’s Dream Together Master’s program