British swimmer Duncan Scott has been the subject of death threats on social media after refusing to shake hands with China’s Sun Yang after the 200m freestyle medal ceremony at the World Championships in South Korea.
In an echo of the protest by Mack Horton who did not take his place on the podium for Yang’s victory in the 400m freestyle on Sunday, Scott refused to pose for pictures or shake hands with Sun. That led to an angry reaction from Sun, who shouted at Scott from the podium and then wagged a finger in his face on their way back from the pool, appearing to say “You’re a loser. I’m a winner.” Fina, swimming’s governing body, responded on Tuesday by issuing both swimmers with warning letters for their "inadequate behaviour".
Sun, who was booed by the crowd in Gwangju, served a three-month ban in 2014 after testing positive for banned stimulant trimetazidine, which led to Horton calling him a “drug cheat” at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He is also subject to an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency at the Court of Arbitration for Sport which could result in a lifetime ban. He was initially cleared by Fina on a technicality after a confrontation with doping testers which led to a vial of his blood being smashed with a hammer.
Scott, who finished joint third, has received hundreds of messages of abuse on social media, including photoshops of his head in a hangman’s noose, as well as threats to his family. Immediately after the race he was unrepentant at adding fuel to an already simmering fire. “I’m team Mack,” Scott told the BBC. “If [Sun] can't respect our sport then why should I respect him? I think a lot of people, everyone in swimming, got behind what Mack did.”
By whatever means, Sun is one of China’s most successful sportsmen, becoming the first Chinese male swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. Thousands of Chinese social media users have bypassed their own country’s firewall to abuse those critical of their golden boy.
Adam Peaty, who won gold for Britain in the 100m breaststroke, has found his social media accounts inundated with abuse after previously speaking out about Sun’s presence at the Championships. On Tuesday, Peaty backed the stance taken by his teammate and Horton.
“He should be asking himself now should he really be in sport when the people were booing him, but I know how they are and I know how he is so...” Peaty said. “I think the most important thing as a sportsperson is you have the right to a voice and Duncan showed his voice and so did the crowd. If the fans aren’t wanting him [Sun] I don’t even know why he’s here.”
Nor was the race itself without controversy. Lithuania’s Danas Rapsys finished first but was disqualified for twitching on his starting block. Sun was promoted to first place and reacted by further goading the crowd. Scott, 22, had finished joint fourth with Russia's Martin Malyutin and was promoted to the podium, where he stood for the anthems but stood down immediately afterwards. Though he congratulated both Katsuhiro Matsumoto of Japan, who finished second, and Malyutin, he conspicuously blanked Sun.