SYDNEY: The Sword of Damocles might be dangling over the career of Sun Yang but the triple Olympic champion’s bid for a fourth successive 400m freestyle crown will still be one of the highlights of the swimming world championships in Gwangju.
The first male Chinese swimmer to win an Olympic gold, the first man to win world and Olympic titles at all freestyle distances from 200 to 1,500, and a world record holder, the 27-year-old’s place in his country’s sporting pantheon is secure.
A three-month ban for the use of a banned stimulant in 2014 was always going to sully his legacy but more serious allegations are currently under consideration at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Sun strongly denied a report that he disrupted an out-of-competition test last September but he could still face a life ban when CAS hear the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s appeal against swimming governing body FINA’s decision to clear him.
While that far-from-opaque process rumbles along in the background, Sun is free to lead China’s 43-strong team at his seventh world championships, looking to add to his collection of nine individual world titles.
Sun will defend the gold in the 200 and also swim in the 800 and the 1,500 freestyle, but there can be little doubt that retaining the 400 title he has held since 2013 is by far his best chance of snaring that 10th gold.
Victory would give him membership of an exclusive club with Michael Phelps (200 Butterfly), Aaron Peirsol (200 backstroke), Ryan Lochte (200 medley) and Grant Hackett (1500 freestyle) as a winner of four or more world titles in one men’s event.
Sun owns the best time of the year (3:42.75s) and his only loss in a major final at the distance in the last eight years came when Australian Mack Horton snatched the Olympic title away from him in Rio.
Horton, who publicly dubbed Sun a “drug cheat” and was runner-up behind him at the last worlds, has struggled this year and missed out on qualification at the Australian trials, only making the team as a discretionary pick.
The biggest threat to Sun’s supremacy might therefore come from Gabriele Detti, the Italian who was third behind Sun and Horton in the last two global finals and recovered from a shoulder injury to swim a personal best time in April.
Horton’s compatriot Jack McLoughlin and Lithuania’s Danas Rapsys, who shares the second fastest time of the year with Detti (3:43.36), will also look to benefit if Sun is at anything but his best in South Korea.
Sun will also be in with a shout of a medal in his 200 title defence and although he could also join the “four gold club” in the 800 freestyle, his competitiveness in the longer events at the very top level has declined over his career.
That career may yet end with a ban that rules him out of next year’s Olympics but while Sun continues to shine in global competition, China – sure to be well represented in the Gwangju bleachers – will continue to fete their greatest male swimmer.