RIO DE JANEIRO — The sausage-making aspects of the postOlympic-swim race gantlet go something like this: The athletes emerge from the pool, are interviewed by NBC if their performance warrants, then endure a gantlet of television questions from outlets all over the planet, then a slew of print reporters get a shot. Finally, for the medal winners, there is a joint news conference — with athletes from different countries speaking different languages, sitting side-by-side.
So here we were, Saturday night, going through this drill. And Mack Horton, the Australian who kicked off a promising meet for his country by winning the 400-meter freestyle, was addressing the topic of Sun Yang, the Chinese swimmer whom he beat for the gold — and who has generally perturbed him, first for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2014, then by splashing water in his lane during a training session before the Olympics began.
“I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive and are still competing,” Horton told the assembled press.
The conference’s moderator, without missing a beat, immediately said, “So before we go on, let’s welcome Sun Yang.”
And Sun sat down.
Sun responded — at the same news conference — in Mandarin, accusing Horton of using mind games to gain an advantage.
“On the competition stage, every athlete deserves to be respected,” Sun said, “and there’s no need to use these sort of cheap tricks to affect each other.”
The spat between Horton and Sun, which Horton clearly frames as good vs. evil, provided a nice little sidelight to the beginning of the Olympic swim meet.
Sun tested positive for a stimulant, trimetazidine, during Chinese nationals in 2014. He was stripped of his 1,500 freestyle championship and suspended for three months. This is something Horton held on to for more than two years. Sun, meanwhile, claimed to be friends with members of the Australian teams — and also claimed that his splashing, kiddie-pool style, was misinterpreted.
Horton thought otherwise.
“He just kind of splashed me, but I ignored him because I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats,” Horton said after the preliminary heats Saturday. “He wasn’t too happy about that, so he kept splashing me. I just got in and did my thing.”
He continued that theme afterward.
Asked by an Australian journalist whether he considered his gold medal a victory for clean swimming, Horton said: “Exactly. You took the words right out of my mouth.”
Asked by a Chinese journalist why he called Sun a “drug cheat,” Horton said: “I used the words drug cheat because he tested positive.”
Sun has a history and not just with Horton. At last year’s world championships, he was accused of assaulting a Brazilian female swimmer, Larissa Oliveira, following an argument in the warmup pool. In China, he was caught driving a Porsche without a license — only after he rammed into a bus.
So Horton was provided a high horse, and he climbed directly on it.
“Definitely a win for the good guys,” Horton said. “I don’t know if it’s a rivalry between me and him, just me and athletes who have tested positive.”
This issue isn’t over, either. Sun is the world record holder and defending gold medalist in the 1,500 free. Horton has the second-fastest time in the world this year. The two are slated to swim in the same heat of that race Saturday.