Liam Morgan

There were few genuine revelations about the high-profile case involving Chinese swimming star Sun Yang during his Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing at a plush hotel in Montreux last week.

The facts had long been established before the 27-year-old three-time Olympic champion had his self-requested day in court in a picturesque setting on the shores of Lake Geneva.

As one lawyer put it in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, should you have wanted to become acquainted with the finer details in a fascinating yet troubling case, you could have just read the report from the International Swimming Federation (FINA) doping panel after it was leaked earlier this year.

"There was no 'gotcha' moment in this," former Canadian swimmer Nikki Dryden said following the 11-hour hearing, where proceedings frequently bordered on the farcical.

While that may be true, in many ways it was more significant for shining a light on a seldom seen - yet crucial - mechanism in the convoluted world of anti-doping.

Every athlete sanctioned with a doping offence who appeals to the CAS has the right to the same style of hearing granted to Sun. On the evidence of the 11-time world champion's time in front of the panel, it is little wonder why this was the first to be held in public for two decades.

At times, it was reminiscent of a soap opera. We had bad jokes from one of the arbitrators and a clash between the athlete's mother and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) legal team, before Sun capped off the madness by waving a stranger from the gallery into the hearing to help with the translation as he gave his closing statement.

All of this played out amid a suspenseful atmosphere during a hearing where the anti-doping process athletes have to abide by was on trial as much as the swimmer himself.

Sun Yang's testimony was blighted by farcical translation problems ©Getty Images
Sun Yang's testimony was blighted by farcical translation problems ©Getty Images

Issues with the simultaneous Chinese to English translation began from the outset, delaying the start of the hearing and rendering incomprehensible much of Sun's eagerly anticipated opening statement.

Sun's British lawyer Ian Meakin interjected on at least three occasions. At one point he apologised for asking a leading question but insisted he had no choice because the translation was "so bad".

The third interruption came when Meakin pointed out part of a question from the WADA legal team during their cross-examination of Sun had been translated as "200 milliletres of blood" instead of "200 times".

Cue audible murmurs of frustration from those of us in the public viewing area, some of whom questioned how such a vital moment in an athlete's career could be dogged by technical issues.

While the translator - later replaced by a WADA staff member - had been appointed by Sun's team, the absurdity of the opening exchanges reflected badly on the CAS and had some of us asking whether both sides would have grounds to appeal based on the manner in which they were conducted.

After all, Sun, facing a possible eight-year suspension, was clearly unable to get his point across. When WADA's team came to challenge the assertions in his statement, he struggled to understand most of the questions being put to him.

This made it hard to escape the feeling of injustice, one which prevailed throughout the hearing, although not all of which was in favour of the Chinese athlete.

The CAS hearing in Montreux was the first to be held in public or 20 years ©Getty Images
The CAS hearing in Montreux was the first to be held in public or 20 years ©Getty Images

The crux of the argument presented by Sun and his team was that the testers who arrived at his home in Zheijang province on the night of September 4 2018 were not properly accredited.

These claims have seemingly being corroborated in an anonymous interview to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, where one of the officials, who did not testify at the hearing, admitted he was a builder and not a professional doping control assistant and said he had never been trained in doping control.

The insistence that the testers lacked the necessary credentials may eventually be proven true. But in some ways Sun did not help himself, as he painted himself as an expert in what documentation drugs testers must possess in order to carry out their job, while simultaneously claiming he was unaware of the consequences of not providing a sample.

This despite the fact he was tested 180 times between 2012 and 2018. A total of 60 of the in-competition tests he was subjected to during that period were carried out by the same agency who undertook the ill-fated visit on the night in question.

WADA - which boasted Richard Young, who helped bring down Lance Armstrong - in its legal arsenal countered by arguing the credentials of the testers were in order.

Stuart Kemp, a witness for WADA, had earlier highlighted how the sample collection guidelines outlined in the International Standard for Testing and Investigations (ISTI) were best practice and not mandatory.

In closing, Young said the guidelines, which suggest a letter of notification from officers carry their names and that of the athlete to be tested, were neither the law nor legally binding.

Here lies an important nuance. While the ISTI itself is mandatory, the best practice guidelines on sample collection can essentially be ignored, a troubling realisation for the thousands of athletes who go through this process.

More broadly, it reinforces the view that athletes are subjected to much higher standards than practically all of those involved in anti-doping, from those at the top down to those who physically collect their samples.

The three-time Olympic champion blamed the lack of accreditation possessed by the testers for the row ©Getty Images
The three-time Olympic champion blamed the lack of accreditation possessed by the testers for the row ©Getty Images

Sun, however, could have avoided the fiasco which led to a security guard smashing his blood vial with a hammer by providing a sample under protest.

Yes, it is a simplistic way of looking at it, but had Sun been able to ignore his concerns about the legitimacy of the testers and provide a sample anyway, he would have a far better case and may not have found himself battling to save his career with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games less than a year away.

Instead, his failure to comply, no matter how illegitimate he thought the testers were, implies he has something to hide.

On the other hand, the fact that he chose to gamble his career on his version of events prevailing, described as "foolish in the extreme" by the FINA doping panel which let him off with a warning, represents a worrying lack of faith from an athlete in the system.

And is it fair that an athlete is forced to provide a sample, even if they have doubts about those who have arrived to collect it?

Another pertinent point came from Professor Philippe Sands, one of the three CAS judges, who suggested a "floodgate" of appeals could be opened if the verdict goes in Sun's favour.

Sands highlighted how athletes had been banned by FINA, and other International Federations, based on the same procedure and the accreditation letter at the centre of the case.

"If you are right, hundreds, possibly thousands of tests, could be illegal,” he said during Sun's legal team's closing statement. "This would have far-reaching consequences."

But surely CAS should not make a decision based on the potential ramifications stemming from the case at hand? Is it not their job to base its verdict solely on the merits of the case?

The verdict, which could come early next year, will not please everyone, but it is fair to say the rare public CAS hearing provided more questions than answers.