BEIJING - Chinese doping officials said they were not trying to cover up Sun Yang's positive test and that they held back news of his three-month suspension because they did not want to make any mistakes with "the most famous athlete in China".
Sun, China's most successful male swimmer, secretly served his ban sometime earlier this year after testing positive for the banned stimulant trimetazidine. It was only yesterday that the China Anti-Doping Agency (Chinada) revealed that the 22-year-old world and Olympic champion had committed a doping offence.
"Sun is the most famous athlete in China and is known in the world, which means we need to handle his case very cautiously," Chinada deputy director Zhao Jian told the country's official news agency, Xinhua.
"This is huge bad news but we will not cover it up.
"We announce positive cases and test statistics in our quarterly reports just as Wada (World Anti-Doping Agency) requires."
Chinada said Sun had been given a three-month penalty because he had been taking trimetazidine for years to treat an existing heart problem and was unaware that the stimulant had been added to Wada's banned list in January.
Trimetazidine is normally used to treat angina, dizziness and tinnitus. AFP reported that it also improves glucose utilisation.
Sun tested positive on May 17 during the national championships and although he said he took the drug for medical reasons, Chinese officials said it still warranted a penalty.
Mr Zhao said the length of the penalty was appropriate. "Sun proved with sufficient evidence that he did not intend to cheat, which helped reduce his ban to three months," he said. "But his failure to inform the doping control official should be punished all the same."
Xinhua said he had waived his right to have his B urine sample tested and defended himself at a hearing in July.
Two months later, he took gold in the 400m and 1,500m freestyle and the 4x100m relay at the Asian Games in Incheon.
Sun, a two-time Olympic champion who also has five world championship golds to his name, has frequently faced controversy throughout his career.
At the Asian Games, he called the Japanese national anthem "ugly", a comment for which he later apologised.
Last year, he was suspended from commercial activities and warned about his personal behaviour after a battle with his coach over a relationship with an airline stewardess.
The swim star's notoriety grew in November last year when he was caught driving a relative's Porsche without a licence following a collision with a bus. He was jailed for one week and suspended from swimming for six months.
In comments reported by Xinhua yesterday, the Zhejiang native, who was also fined 5,000 yuan (S$1,060) and stripped of his national 1,500m title, said: "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."
However, it remains to be seen whether his contrition will help win fans back. Comments from Chinese fans were overwhelmingly negative after the news broke, with many chastising Sun for what they saw as reckless and immature behaviour.
"He is a troublesome child who won't grow up," said one netizen on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service. Another asked: "Is this the price paid for shooting to fame while you are young?"