When it comes to China, will sport mind its business?

On the night of his silent protest against Sun Yang, Mack Horton walked out of the Nambu University Aquatics Centre into the steamy darkness of Gwangju and boarded a shuttle bus for the short trip back to the athletes’ village.

An hour or so earlier, the bespectacled Horton had stunned the FINA World Championships by refusing to share a medal dais with a swimmer revered inside China but suspected by outsiders as having doped his way to glory.

Mack Horton makes his protest during the 2019 FINA World Championships medal ceremony in Gwangju, South Korea.Credit:Getty Images

Sun Yang’s swimming career now appears at an end. On Friday night, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned an earlier decision by a FINA anti-doping panel and handed him an eight-year ban for refusing to submit to a drug test and tampering with a blood sample. Sun Yang can appeal against the decision but as it stands, it vindicates Horton’s essential grievance in Gwangju: had FINA properly applied its own anti-doping rules, Sun Yang wouldn’t have been competing at the world championships.

Horton’s actions on the Gwangju dais were naive, impromptu and, he says, not targeted at China. Yet in doing what he did, Horton laid bare the dilemma facing all sport as it seeks to share in the riches and possibilities offered by the world’s most populous nation.

“You have to understand and respect every aspect of where they are coming from and why they are in things,’’ says Peter Johnston, a Melbourne-based tennis director who has spent the past seven years running tournaments in China. “If you are going to go into association with them, you are in the whole way and you have to be able to take into account their values and manage those values. You are signing up for that whole journey.”

China makes no secret that it sees sport as a means to greater influence and power. The Chinese Communist Party’s plan for sports development, contained within the current, five-year plan adopted by Xi Jinping’s Central Committee before the Rio Olympics, makes this ambition clear.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Chinese President Xi Jinping receive T-shirts at the 2019 China-Finland Year of Winter Sports at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.Credit:AP

The plan elevates sport to a “landmark undertaking for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” and notes that “new foreign affairs strategies will provide a broad stage for showcasing the soft power of sports”. It speaks of increasing Chinese influence through its hosting of major sporting events, most notably the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and pledges to “vigorously carry forward the Chinese-style sports spirit that has patriotism at its core”.

What does this mean? Two seemingly disconnected episodes on opposite sides of the world last week show the ripple effect of Beijing’s influence.

In suburban Melbourne, a private school was dunked into the deep end of an emotive debate about whether it should name its newly opened, $25 million aquatic centre after Horton, its first alumnus to win Olympic gold.

Caulfield Grammar, which runs a campus in the Chinese city of Nanjing and draws a large portion of its student population at its Wheelers Hill campus from local Chinese-Australian families, had spent the best part of two years courting the idea of how a Mack Horton Aquatic Centre might look and operate.

An artist’s impression of the new aquatic centre at Caulfield Grammar School.

The school had consulted Horton and his father, Andrew, on how to balance community and commercial use of the pool, sounded out Horton’s coach, Craig Jackson, about shifting his high-performance squad to the pool from the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Albert Park and leveraged Horton’s old boy status to elicit donations for the project.

Three months after Horton’s protest in Gwangju, at a time when the pool was nearing completion, those discussions abruptly ceased. The school denies this was done to preserve its relationship with China. Sources close to the matter say this is precisely what happened. The school has now deferred any decision about the name of the pool until at least next year.

The other episode was revealed in the court files of an obscure jurisdiction, the Swiss Federal Court. An Associated Press journalist discovered that, on the eve of last year’s Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing of the Sun Yang case, FINA joined Sun Yang’s lawyers in applying for the case to be thrown out on a technicality.

On one level, FINA siding with Sun Yang’s lawyers on a pre-hearing dispute is hardly sinister. The proceedings before CAS were an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency against a finding by the FINA anti-doping panel which cleared Sun Yang of any doping offence. Sun Yang and FINA were both named as respondents to the appeal.

Notwithstanding these legal nuances, it was a terrible look for FINA to sign up to an application which, if successful, would have forced WADA to drop its case and left unresolved allegations which have split the sport of swimming.

Naomi Osaka of Japan poses with her winner’s trophy at the China Open last year.Credit:AP

China’s importance to global sport is a direct function of having the world’s second-largest economy and a fast-growing middle class of more than half-a-billion people. Its sports-watching population delivers significant broadcast revenues for the NBA and professional football leagues around the world and its ravenous appetite for consumer goods makes China a boom market for sponsors, accounting for one in every seven pairs of sneakers sold globally.

To appreciate a small slice of the enormous market China offers to sport, consider the Chinese TV audience for this year’s Australian Open tennis tournament. The men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem was watched by nearly 5 million people in China, a figure that dwarfs the average audience of 2 million for the same match in Australia. The Australian Open is the most-watched major tennis tournament in China, and this year, the number of hours viewed on China’s state-owned sports broadcaster, CCTV-5, was nearly double the previous year’s figure.

Where China differs from other sporting markets is its willingness to turn off the tap if a sport, the people who run it or prominent athletes who play it don’t respect the boundaries of that relationship. The most dramatic example is China’s decision to pull the plug on CCTV’s broadcast of NBA matches since October last year, when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey urged his Twitter followers to “stand with Hong Kong”. Those four words, according to a report published by ESPN, have so far cost every NBA franchise an average of $US150 million to $US200 million ($228 million to $304.4 million) in lost revenue.

Demonstrators hold up photos of LeBron James grimacing during a rally in Hong Kong.Credit:AP

Two months after the NBA disappeared from televisions in China, CCTV also boycotted an English Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City. This was done to express China’s anger at comments by Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, who posted on Instagram, in his native Turkish, a message in support for the estimated 1 million Uighurs detained in “training camps” in Xinjiang. Arsenal, in response, walked a careful, diplomatic line, saying Ozil had expressed a personal opinion and the club did not involve itself in politics. Ozil has since been deleted from the Chinese version of a popular video game, Pro Evolution Soccer 2020.

For Horton, the commercial implications of his snub of Sun Yang were also keenly felt. Heading into the world championships, Horton was close to finalising a potentially lucrative sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola. Within hours of the Gwangju medal ceremony, the deal was kaput. As Coke explained to his management, the company admired Horton but could not promote him in China, the company’s fastest-growing market. Speedo kept its sponsorship of Horton but does not use his name or image to sell bathers and goggles in China.

Australia’s Peter Norman on the medal dais at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the Black Power salute.

China’s leverage in sport goes beyond its commercial clout. The strategic importance it places on Olympic success and more recently, Xi Jinping’s personal backing for China to become a football powerhouse capable of winning the FIFA World Cup by 2050 means it dedicates enormous resources to develop athletic and coaching talent. In sports such as tennis and swimming, the Central People’s Government is also a crucial major events partner.

In tennis, the women’s WTA tour has scheduled 10 tournaments in mainland China this year and separate events in Hong Kong and Taipei. The men’s tour has scheduled four tournaments in China. In swimming, where FINA’s control over the sport is being challenged by the nascent International Swimming League, China is a reliable supporter of FINA events, from world championships to world cup meets, within its borders.

Matt Dunn, a three-time Olympic swimmer for Australia, is a FINA vice-president. Dunn says China is as important to swimming as any other powerhouse nation, contributes significantly to the sport’s global audience and related revenues and has a “large appetite” for hosting events. He says he is not aware of any pressure on FINA from China to come down against Horton. Since Gwangju, FINA and the International Olympic Committee have strengthened their prohibitions against protests of any kind during competition.

“It is difficult," Dunn says. “I am certainly against any form of political process on a podium. I think it detracts from the performance of other athletes. In this instance, I believe it overshadowed the gold medals of Ariarne Titmus and the 4×100 freestyle relay girls. From that perspective, I am in line with what the IOC’s expectations are and that’s aligned with FINA’s expectations. I am certainly not opposed to freedom of speech but I don’t think that was the platform or the forum.”

Under the IOC’s newly revised Rule 40, athletes at Olympic Games can express political views in media interviews and on social media but any “refusal to follow ceremonies protocol” can result in an athlete being stripped of their medal.

St Kilda and Port Adelaide players run through the banner before last year’s match in Shanghai.Credit:AAP

Professor Jack Anderson, the director of sports law studies at Melbourne University, notes that at the same time the IOC is tightening its rules governing political expression, it has relaxed its restrictions on athletes promoting their personal sponsors during the Games.

Television personality David Koch is the chairman of Port Adelaide, the AFL club most heavily invested with China. He argues that the club’s commercial arrangements with China, which include playing a match in China and a newly announced sponsorship deal with the Chinese-owned car maker MG, carry no risk of the club, its staff or players being influenced by Beijing. Rather, he sees football as providing a “bridge” between two cultures.

“There are some sections of Chinese government policy we are uneasy with,’’ he says. “We are uneasy with gun laws in America. So there are clashes of cultures and understanding across all sorts of countries.

“Because they have a very different culture and they have developed so quickly there is a natural unease. That is where we think we can play a big role in building that bridge through football. China can get an understanding of what we are about and Australians can get a better understanding of what they are about.”

This sunny view is not shared by author Clive Hamilton, the Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. His book, provocatively titled Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, examines what he sees as a systematic campaign by Beijing to control how we think about and publicly discuss China. He says in this context, what Caulfield Grammar decides to name its pool is no small matter.

“Universities and schools really are the front line of this extension of power by Beijing,’’ he says. “What Beijing wants above all is to control the way the rest of the world talks about and thinks about the Chinese Communist Party and its rule in China. It has an explicit policy of global discourse control and it is exactly this kind of incident where thousands of institutions and individuals around the Western world are watching what they say in case they offend Beijing.

“That means this is a serious attack on free speech. It means that, at the back of our minds, we are always asking can we say this, can we name this pool after a sports hero, can we publish this article in a newspaper, do we, an airline have to change the way we talk about Taiwan, do we have to make sure we never quote or refer to the Dalai Lama?”

If the Tokyo Olympics go ahead later this year, Mack Horton will be there and Sun Yang will not. This represents a significant win for Horton and his campaign for clean sport. For China, a much bigger race is well under way.

Additional reporting by Jake Niall

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