Australian Olympic champion Mack Horton has been accused of “disrespecting China” after staging a bold podium protest against his arch rival at the world swimming titles.
Horton, who was relegated to silver in the 400m freestyle, refused to shake hands with China’s gold medal winner Sun Yang, who he has previously labelled a “drug cheat”.
He also refused to stand on the podium with the almost-unbeaten Sun, who is a megastar in China, and would only pose for photos with the third-placed swimmer, Italy’s Gabriele Detti.
Horton said he was unhappy Sun had been allowed to compete at the world titles in South Korea ahead of a Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing in September that may end the Chinese star’s career.
The 10-time world champion will answer charges of smashing vials of his blood with a hammer when doping testers were attempting to take samples at his home in China.
Sun – who claimed a fourth straight 400m world title – faces a lifetime ban if found guilty.
It remains to be seen if Horton faces sanction from world body FINA over his protest.
The three-time Olympic champion has responded to Horton’s actions, claiming his protest was an offence to China.
“I was aware that the Australian athlete had dissatisfaction and personal feelings towards me,” Sun said via an interpreter.
“But it was unfortunate because disrespecting me is okay but disrespecting China was very unfortunate and I felt sorry about that.”
“I’m aware of the rumours (about his alleged hammer attack).
“(But) I think this has been the greatest achievement in history for the Chinese (swimming) team.”
Backlash against Horton appeared swiftly on social media as it had ahead of the Rio Olympics when he dismissed Sun as a “drug cheat” and copped vile online abuse.
Sun served a three-month doping ban in 2014. He was defeated by Horton two years later in a shock upset at the 2016 Games when the Australian freestyler took gold in the 400m.
Horton is the only swimmer to have beaten Sun in the past eight years.
The Australian swim team has thrown its support behind Horton’s latest stance, joining calls for #cleansport.
Head coach Jacco Verhaeren claimed he had no prior knowledge of Horton’s protest but had no problem with it.
“That was his idea to do that. But let’s put it this way, I understand him very much,” he said.
“He has been very strong and vocal about this in the past … you can only respect him for what he does.
“Mack stands for what he stands for. Nobody can take that away from him, nobody should.”
Dolphins team leader Cate Campbell – another vocal critic of Sun in the past – championed Horton’s stand.
“I support clean sport and I support swimmers standing up for their beliefs and I think that Mack did an incredible job and we’ll take it as a win for Australia,” she said.
Titmus sets up swim rivalry with Ledecky
Meanwhile Australia’s Ariarne Titmus may have started a great swimming rivalry after her stunning 400m freestyle world title victory over American great Katie Ledecky.
Titmus became the first Australian woman to claim the world 400m title since Tracey Wickham in 1978 after pulling off a boilover victory that snapped Ledecky’s staggering winning streak.
Titmus clocked a Commonwealth record three minutes, 58.76 seconds to upstage the once untouchable Ledecky.
The American had not been beaten in 400m, 800m or 1500m freestyle at a major international meet since 2012 until the 18-year-old pulled off one of the great boilovers.
Yet Titmus’ hard marking coach Dean Boxall still found fault with the landmark swim.
“I think she could have executed it a little bit better. It was a good swim, of course … but it could have been better,” he said.
“I thought she nearly missed an opportunity there.”
Still, Titmus was confident she had done enough for Ledecky to take her seriously as a threat ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Ledecky had refused to speak specifically about Titmus ahead of the titles despite the world No.2 ranked teenager’s impressive form, stonewalling reporters by claiming “everyone was a threat”.
Titmus reckoned that may now have changed.
“Now hopefully she is excited that she now has a battle with me,” Titmus said.