At first glance, the narrative seems simple.
Mackenzie Horton vanquishes the defending Olympic 400-metres freestyle champion, Sun Yang (pictured), and wins gold. Later, Horton declares that 'he has no time or respect for drug cheats'.
In 2014 China's Anti-Doping Authority had banned Sun Yang for three months, for testing positive to a prohibited stimulant. Journalists ask Horton if he meant Sun and he replies, 'I just have a problem with him testing positive and still competing.'
A fresh-faced clean athlete calling out a drug cheat from a powerful nation is a sound bite with universal allure, and the comment went global.
The vitriolic reactions from China, however, show that Horton and Sun's poolside spat is anything but simple. Especially in the context of China's self-proclaimed arc of progress, whereby the People's Republic once more assumes its mantle of 'great nation' status.
It is this positioning of eight very fast laps of freestyle within the context of international diplomacy that has elevated the stoush to Olympian heights.
Protestations about the participation of athletes with drug records strike chords with television publics worldwide. Some viewers wilfully believe that sporting greatness is still achievable for those who eschew illegal drugs in order to work harder and train more astutely than their competitors. For them, Michael Phelps is a champion example.
Thus in the face of systematic cheating in sports, from AFL's Essendon saga to Lance Armstrong's brazen efforts, someone prepared to proclaim the era of the cleanskin becomes immensely appealing. For many Australians, Horton was thus not only taking his place in the pantheon of our champion Olympians he was also sticking a thumb in the eye of the cynical drug cheats. Horton became our latest prophet for an Australia of the fair go. That much is clear.
"For 21st century Chinese, Horton's statements become yet more tasteless examples of foreign aggression, and a dismissal of China's perceived stature."
Less immediately obvious, however, is that Horton — whose nickname is 'Mack the Knife' — seems to ascribe to the Steve Waugh theory of mental disintegration. Mack admitted he had hoped to get under Sun's skin through such comments. While the defending champion Sun swam fast, Horton swam faster. The extent to which Sun Yang's transition from Olympic champion to the Herschel Gibbs of the natatorium was due to mind games is debatable; regardless, the Aussie battler myth also has no place for such considerations.
For most Australians, winners are grinners. Even if some Australians might question the tact and timing of Horton's comments, most would concede that international sport is no place for the faint hearted. Furthermore, as the 24-year-old Sun is physically more like Michael 'The Albatross' Gross than Glen Housman (Sun Yang is 198cm tall and weighs almost 100kg), his expressions of hurt and outrage over Horton's comments make him seem more sook than self-proclaimed king.
Yet, even so, in this case Horton's words speak more loudly than his actions and while Sun can seem a poor loser, to Chinese spectators Horton (and Australia by extension) can seem an ungracious winner. The comments have fed into a broader discourse around national sovereignty, and the respective maturity of both countries.
That is, for 21st century Chinese, ever mindful of China's military defeats in more recent centuries and the recent negative ruling at the Hague in regards to territorial claims in the South China Sea, Horton's statements become yet more tasteless examples of foreign aggression, and a dismissal of China's perceived stature. For Chinese nationalists, criticism of Sun is criticism of China, regardless of the issue. Since such criticism is not usually debated in Chinese official media, Chinese nationalists become free to respond to attacks on China wherever they find them. Japan, China's wartime foe, is more usually the target but at the Olympics Horton added Australia to the frame.
Not surprisingly, the PRC government is more than happy that its patriots are outraged, and even stoke the sense of victimhood. This is because external threats unite internal forces and netizens are thus conveniently distracted from problems within China. Internet technology allows such outrage to spread widely, in an ever-decontextualised way. Chinese posts quickly became not about Sun's proven drug use (unwitting or otherwise) or an Olympic event but about Horton's parentage, likeness to serpents and various predilections.
Horton desired to highlight the need for more stringent application of doping policies but in the process he enabled Chinese nationalists to bolster their inflated national pride, at his and Australia's expense. That Horton used his justified concern about drug use as a competitive tactic lessened the effectiveness of his denunciation, and only enabled Chinese nationalists to once more don the mantle of victim, one they wear all too readily.
As a result, any chance for reform around issues like drugs in sport got caught in the wake of wounded egos and jingoistic pride.
Dr Jeremy Clarke is a visiting fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU and Director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd.