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Australia's Mack Horton and China's Sun Yang just don't like each other

By Barry Svrluga

Sun Yang, left, and Mack Horton are rivals on and off the water. Photos / AP
Sun Yang, left, and Mack Horton are rivals on and off the water. Photos / AP

The sausage-making aspects of the post-Olympic-swim race gauntlet go something like this: The athletes emerge from the pool, are interviewed by NBC if their performance warrants, then endure a gauntlet 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 press conference - with athletes from different countries speaking different languages, sitting side-by-side.

So here we were, Saturday night, going through this drill.

Winner Mack Horton, centre, thrid placed Italy's Gabriele Detti, left, and silver medallist Sun Yang from China hold their medals after the men's 400m freestyle final at Rio. Photo / AP
Winner Mack Horton, centre, thrid placed Italy's Gabriele Detti, left, and silver medallist Sun Yang from China hold their medals after the men's 400m freestyle final at Rio. Photo / AP

And Mack Horton, the Australian who kicked off a promising meet for his country by winning the 400m freestyle, was addressing the topic of Sun Yang, the Chinese swimmer who 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.

Australia's Mack Horton and China's Sun Yang, far right, compete in the final of the men's 400m freestyle. Photo / AP
Australia's Mack Horton and China's Sun Yang, far right, compete in the final of the men's 400m freestyle. Photo / AP

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 1500 freestyle championship and suspended three months. This is something Horton held onto 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."

So, then, 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."

Well, then.

Supporters of Yang urged Horton to apologise for his comments against the Chinese swimmer, leaving shocking messages across the Aussie's social media accounts, reported news.com.au.

"Loser", "Snake", "Ugly", "You make me sick" - was just some of the abuse hurled at Australia's newest Olympic champion.

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 Olivera, following an argument in the warm-up 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 1500 free. Horton has the second-fastest time in the world this year. The two are currently slated to swim in the same heat of that race next Saturday.

Stay tuned.

- Washington Post

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