Australian swimmer Mack Horton has been warned for his silent protest against sports doping by refusing to share the podium with his Chinese rival Sun Yang at the world championships in South Korea, a gesture applauded by his fellow competitors.
Silver-medallist Horton, 23, refused to shake hands or be photographed with the winner Sun, who he has labelled a “drug cheat”, during the award ceremony of the 400-metre freestyle in Gwangju on Sunday night.
FINA’s executive board met on Monday and decided to send a warning letter to Swimming Australia and Horton, swimming’s world governing body said in a statement.
“While FINA respects the principle of freedom of speech, it has to be conducted in the right context,” it said.
“As in all major sports organisations, our athletes and their entourages are aware of their responsibilities to respect FINA regulations and not use FINA events to make personal statements or gestures,” the statement added.
Horton’s protest came as Sun, who served a three-month doping sanction in 2014, is being allowed to compete in Gwangju before he faces a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing for a separate case in September that could potentially end the three-time Olympic champion’s career.
The World Anti-Doping Agency is challenging a decision by FINA merely to warn Sun for allegedly using a hammer to destroy his blood sample when a doping control team visited his home in China last September.
FINA said: “The matter over which Mack Horton was allegedly protesting is currently under review by CAS and therefore it is not appropriate for FINA to prejudice this hearing by commenting further”.
Sun and Horton are bitter rivals as the Australian called the Chinese a “drug cheat” to his face before going on to win the 400m freestyle gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He also refused to shake Sun’s hand at the time.
On Sunday, Horton stood behind the podium when he was given his silver medal. He didn’t join Sun and bronze medalist Gabriele Detti of Italy for the traditional photos on the top spot afterwards.
Sun, 27, said he was aware Horton has a problem with him.
“Disrespecting me was OK, but disrespecting China was unfortunate,” Sun told reporters through a translator. “I feel sorry about that.”
Fear of ocean swimming rises in Australia over sharks
While the move drew criticism from some quarters of the media, and outrage from Chinese swimming fans, Horton later received a round of applause that swelled into a standing ovation when he walked into the dining room at the athlete’s village in Gangju.
“Gutsy move, for sure,” US backstroker Matt Grevers said on Monday.
“I am happy that finally someone has sent a signal,” said Jacob Heidtmann, one of the spokespersons for the German team.
“That he [Sun] swims here is a cheek for all athletes, for everyone who stands for clean sport. It’s a slap in the face and I hope that now this signal is enough that the world governing body recognises that he can never again stand on such a stage.”
Australia’s Mitch Larkin was “super proud” of his teammate and said the whole squad backed him.
“I think 99 percent of athletes around the pool deck back him, so he’s not really standing alone,” he added.
This was not the first time an athlete has used a victory podium to express grievances or make a political statement.
In an iconic silent protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics, American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised black-gloved fists and bowed their heads to signal black power and black unity in the United States.
Al Jazeera and news agencies