BEIJING - Chinese swimming sensation Sun Yang served a three-month doping ban this season before returning to competition, officials revealed on Monday in the country's biggest drugs case in years.
The double Olympic champion and 1,500 metres world record-holder, a superstar who is also known for his brushes with authority, won three gold medals at the Asian Games after serving the previously unannounced ban.
Chinese officials denied a cover-up and said the suspension was unusually short because Sun, 22, had convinced them he did not mean to take the banned stimulant trimetazidine.
"I have taken many doping tests during years of training and competition and I had never failed one before," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Sun as saying.
"I was shocked and depressed at that time, but at the same time it made me cherish my sporting life even more. I will take it as a lesson and be more careful in the future."
Chinese swimmers were notorious for doping in the 1990s, partly explaining the innuendo that swirled after Ye Shiwen's jaw-dropping women's 400m individual medley win at the 2012 London Olympics.
Xinhua said Sun's suspension was imposed in July but backdated to May 17, when he tested positive for trimetazidine at the Chinese national championships.
He was stripped of his 1,500m national title and fined 5,000 yuan ($800). The suspension ended on August 17, a month before the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
The China Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) said Sun, jailed briefly last year for driving offences, waived his right to have his B-sample tested after failing the initial test.
At a hearing he said the trimetazidine was in a prescription drug he sometimes takes for heart palpitations, and he did not know it had been added to the list of banned substances at the start of this year.
Sun "proved with sufficient evidence that he did not intend to cheat", said Zhao Jia, deputy director of CHINADA, according to Xinhua.
Zhao said CHINADA had been too busy with other tests to announce Sun's case earlier. Six other positive cases were revealed in the agency's second and third-quarter reports, both released on Monday.
"Sun is the most famous athlete in China and is known in the world, which means we need to handle his case very cautiously," he told Xinhua.
"This is huge bad news but we will not cover it up."