Horton torment after poking the dragon
Gangs outside the home, constant threats, their business hacked... four years after swimmer Mack Horton outed a Chinese rival as a drug cheat, his family still pays the price.
April 25, 2020
- 21 MINUTE REAd
On a mild October day last year Cheryl Horton was cleaning the backyard pool at the family home – a chore she rigorously avoids until it can be ignored no longer – when the vacuum head made a curious grinding sound. She raised the appliance, felt beneath it, and winced with pain. Blood coursed down her hand, dripping into the pale water. She called to her husband, Andrew, and together they discovered a “bucketload” of broken glass on the floor of the pool. She holds one of these centimetre-thick glass chunks, glinting like a rough-cut diamond, as she speaks. “We keep it on the desk in the study,” she says, “as a reminder of how bad things got.”
The couple knew immediately where the broken glass had come from, and why it was there. Just three months earlier their son, Olympic 400m freestyle gold medallist Mack Horton, had refused to join Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, a three-time Olympic gold medallist and 11-time world champion, on the medal podium at the World Championships in the South Korean city of Gwangju. Horton had just won silver in the 400m freestyle; Sun Yang gold. Mack Horton’s mute protest – standing up for clean sport by refusing to stand beside Sun – unleashed a wave of hostility more disturbing than anything the family had ever experienced. And since their son famously labelled Sun a drug cheat at the 2016 Rio Olympics, they’ve experienced a lot. “We’ve had so many death threats that we’ve stopped taking them seriously,” says Andrew with a grim chuckle.
Mack Horton, left, refuses to join gold medallist Sun Yang, centre, on the podium at Gwangju, South Korea, in July last year. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
At the Rio Olympics, before competition had even begun, Horton says Sun tried to provoke him in a warm-up pool by splashing water and hurling abuse as they both paused at the ends of their lanes. Asked by a reporter afterwards about the contretemps, Mack coolly replied that Sun had “splashed me to say hello, and I didn’t respond because I don’t have time for drug cheats”.
“That was the moment our lives changed,” says Andrew. “That’s when it all started.”
Mack’s remark in Rio, a reference to a three-month suspension his Chinese rival had served in 2014 for taking a banned stimulant, detonated across all forms of media – print, television and internet – with the force of a depth charge. Within 45 minutes, some 680,000 slurs, insults and death threats had assailed Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the Chinese social media platform Weibo. His Wikipedia entry was later trolled. Mack was dog shit, a racist, destined for the Paralympics, and perhaps a nuclear bomb strike. He must apologise. Or else.
A week later, with Mack and his parents still in Rio, there was a break-in at the family home in the blue-chip Melbourne suburb of Glen Iris. Andrew’s business – he runs an educational technology company – also began to experience relentless cyber attacks that could only be mitigated, he says, by denying access from China.
After Mack’s theatrical and somewhat passive-aggressive follow-up protest in South Korea last year, “the hate”, as the family calls it, rose to another level of intensity. Dog turds were hurled at the family home; their trees and plants were poisoned. A passing parade of youths gathered at the back fence to chant slogans while banging pots and pans in the dead of night, or stood in the driveway hurling abuse. Someone who spoke broken English took to phoning Andrew every second day to detail what he would like to do to his daughter (he has no daughter). And there was the broken glass in the family pool.
“The biggest change was the intensity,” says Andrew. “It was unrelenting. Every day and night in the second half of 2019, peaking in September, easing off in February this year.” It relented in the same month that Sun received an eight-year suspension for destroying a blood sample in an out-of-competition doping test.
Horton, who has regular and ongoing security briefings about threats to his family, has been informed that his assailants call themselves “Confucianists”. The 5th century BC Chinese philosopher has been revived in recent years as a national icon by a Chinese Communist Party seeking ethical moorings outside its founding credo of Maoism, and his name has become a codeword for Chinese nationalism. Sun himself seemed to invite a nationalist interpretation of Horton’s comments in Rio, saying: “Disrespecting me was OK, but disrespecting China was unfortunate.”
Andrew harbours no ill-will towards Sun’s supporters, believing on the advice of security officials that they are acting under instructions from the Chinese Communist Party, either directly or indirectly, and “have little choice”. He is concerned, in fact, that some of them will be “beaten up, or worse, if they don’t comply”. He declines, on security grounds, to specify the assistance given to his family by police and security agencies; he’ll only say that he is “very grateful”. The fenced-in suburban family home is by social convention a kingdom, but for the Hortons it is a kingdom under siege.
The family’s challenges are part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation of the Chinese Communist Party’s critics and dissenters. Says a national security analyst who keeps a close eye on the case, and spoke on condition of anonymity: “The Hortons’ story is very disturbing... It says something about the reach of foreign powers within Australia.” Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, tells me: “Australians should know that China’s secretive Ministry of State Security has been carrying out a campaign of intimidation in this country against critics of the regime. It’s illegal and nasty.” Hamilton, co-author of the upcoming Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, says ASIO is trying to monitor activities of this kind. “I hope we see some arrests and prosecutions soon. When that happens, we can expect the usual hysterical denials and calculated outrage from the Chinese embassy, state newspapers and the Party-affiliated Chinese-language media in Australia.”
It’s understood that no arrests have been made in the Horton case, which has been kept from the public gaze. The Hortons report a “constantly revolving cast of characters” at their fence and in their driveway. If any were apprehended by police they would be questioned, cautioned, released, and another would take their place. “This is not an amateur operation,” remarks a security insider.
Politically motivated attacks on non-Chinese Australians are rare, but not unknown. In July last year a University of Queensland student, Drew Pavlou, a vocal critic of the university’s ties with Chinese organisations, says he was assaulted while leading a pro-Hong Kong rally on campus. “In the aftermath I saw my social media flooded by hundreds of abusive messages from supporters of the Chinese government,” says Pavlou, who is Greek-Australian. “There were dozens of threats in Mandarin and English. They threatened to kill me and my family, to rape my mother. It’s a terror tactic to silence critics of the Chinese government.’’ Another position on the spectrum of debate about Chinese influence in Western society is occupied by John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, who warns about the “prejudice known as Orientalism” and points to “the treatment of Sun Yang by Australian xenophobes”.
Sun rose to fame in China when he became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming in 2012 (he won two: the 400m and 1500m). So when Horton defeated the Chinese superstar in the 400m in Rio, on the evening of August 6, 2016, it was bound to ramp up tensions.
Almost immediately Swimming Australia, the sport’s governing body, received letters from its Chinese equivalent threatening reprisals over Horton’s “drug cheat” claims. Shortly after the expiry of the deadline these letters had set for an apology, Swimming Australia’s website was hacked and crashed. Around this time, the Australian Census website went down after it was hit by concerted cyber attacks launched from overseas, in a major embarrassment for the Turnbull government and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Some tech commentators have speculated that these attacks were part of the blowback from Rio.
But there was one lighter moment to the post-Rio backlash. Horton’s coach, Craig Jackson, took six months off to travel around South America and in the jungles of Colombia he met a group of British students who told of a friend in the UK by the name of Matt Horton. “His Instagram account had been bombarded with insults by Sun’s supporters,” Jackson says. “He even wrote to Mack to ask him to please apologise.”
The Hortons are happy to tell the story of their “grand adventure”, as they like to call it – and in the telling, to put it behind them. I catch up for a video call with Andrew, 53, and Cheryl, 52, a month after the announcement of Sun Yang’s eight-year ban – a punishment that will likely end his career, barring a successful appeal. It’s late March, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have just been postponed. Mack, a 24-year-old La Trobe University business management student when he is not chewing up laps in the pool, marked the suspension of training with his first drink in a long time – a negroni – and a handful of almond croissants. But now he has been advised to “shut down” any media engagements amid security concerns: his mother had spied a “serious” drone above the house. Things that had once seemed extraordinary – death threats, abuse, home invasions – are now the wallpaper of their domestic lives. Andrew insists that his son’s protest in South Korea last year was as unrehearsed as his “drug cheat’’ remark in Rio. “It’s not about the result and it’s not about China and it’s not about Sun Yang,” he says. “For Mack, it’s all about clean sport.”
Andrew and Cheryl were in the stands at Rio watching the races when they felt the first ripples of all this. “I saw John Bertrand [president of Swimming Australia] and Mark Anderson [CEO] running towards us with a bunch of support staff,” Andrew recalls. “John asked if I’d had a conversation with Mack about what he was going to say about Sun Yang and I said, ‘No. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve no idea what he’s going to say’. At that point John told me [that Mack had made the drug cheat claim] and I went, ‘Oh… ok-ay’.”
Immediately, and without his knowledge, a Brazilian special forces commando was assigned to shadow the swimmer. His parents, too, had protection; wherever they went they noticed the same two “friendly” young men nearby. “It was only when we were leaving the hotel and saw them putting machine guns into the boot that the penny dropped,” says Cheryl.
Since the Rio games there have been suggestions that Mack’s outing of Sun, made between the heats and the final, was merely astute pre-event gamesmanship: in the 400m freestyle final Sun was more than one and a half seconds off his winning London Olympics time, and immediately after the race was filmed in tears. Others speculate that it was a way for Mack, at his first Olympics, to spur himself on. He told reporters after the event: “The last 50 metres I was thinking about what I said and what would happen if he gets me here.” Craig Jackson tells me there was “no preconceived plan to say any of that, but after he made the comments he had to live up to his words. Mack certainly enjoys the big stage, and there is no stage bigger than the Olympics.”
The heats for Mack’s other big event, the 1500m freestyle, were held the following week. The night before, during an interview for Australian television, Andrew noticed his phone light up with text messages. Two suspicious vans had been spotted outside the family’s home, where their other son Chad was preparing for his Year 12 exams. Andrew shows me one of the texts from a concerned neighbour, which reads: “The garage door was open and so was the house and Mila [the family dog] is missing. The alarm is going off now I am waiting for the police to arrive.”
Cheryl cuts a sharp look at her husband as he tells me this. “This is news to me as well,” she says. “Well I’m letting you know,” Andrew continues. “At around that time the school contacted us by SMS to say they were getting threats concerning Chad. He was actually doing a practice exam so he was escorted out of the school and spent the rest of the Olympics at his mate’s house.” Nothing was stolen from the home, and the dog eventually returned. “By the time the police arrived they’d hightailed it.”
Mark Anderson, former CEO of Swimming Australia, vividly recalls meeting the Hortons in a stairwell of the stadium at Rio soon after their son’s victory in the 400m freestyle. “They were trying to celebrate what was the biggest moment in Mack’s career,” he says. “I was hearing of the break-in at home where the son was still living. They were concerned about Mack in the intense environment in Rio and their son a world away at home. They were justifiably concerned about the safety of both children. The celebration was tinged with concern – it was etched on their faces. But it says something about them that they were able to conduct themselves with dignity throughout.”
The following year Mack Horton told reporters that the ferocity of the blowback – the threats and harassment aimed at him and his family – had changed nothing. “I think I would do the same thing even if I knew the outcome.” And so, two years later, he did. Andrew and Cheryl were back in the stands to cheer on their son at the World Championships in South Korea. They didn’t know he was considering another protest. “But in hindsight we knew something was going to happen,” Cheryl admits. “There was an expectation – you could feel it in the air. Either Mack was going to protest, or someone else would.”
Her son’s actions are immortalised in the iconography of competitive sport. In footage of the event, silver medallist Mack, lantern-jawed and bespectacled like a blond Clark Kent, congratulates Italian bronze medallist Gabriele Detti with a handshake but ignores his gold medallist Chinese rival. When it dawns on Sun that Horton won’t stand next to him on the podium his expression stiffens, and he offers a strained smile. None of the three medal winners in this awkward tableau seems to be playing the standard part: Horton, the steely protester, is resolute yet anxious, uncertain. Nor is there much joy in the smiles Sun and Detti are able to muster. When the trio walks off the stage Sun waves to the crowd, but his smile has once again curdled; Horton brings up the rear with long strides, arms clasped behind his back.
Fresh in the mind of Horton and every swimmer at those championships was a recent report in the UK Sunday Times detailing how three anti-doping testers had arrived at Sun’s home in September 2018 to administer out-of-competition blood and urine tests. Blood was taken at a nearby clubhouse. In the early morning, after a clash between Sun and the officials about their accreditation, qualifications and behaviour – followed by a lengthy standoff – blood samples were allegedly destroyed by Sun’s entourage on the instructions of Sun’s mother Ming Yang. In January 2019 – three weeks before publication of the damning Sunday Times investigation – the sport’s global governing body, FINA, had cleared Sun of wrongdoing on a technicality. So when Mack Horton refused to mount the winners’ podium his protest was as much against FINA’s inaction as it was against Sun.
As the medal ceremony was playing out he heard roars of approval from his fellow athletes. But his parents, who were sitting in a spectator stand opposite, heard only the boos and jeers from Sun Yang’s supporters. “It ramped up after that,” recalls Andrew. Next day a security official told him that in 24 hours “Australian consular officials in China had received more than nine million messages and not one of them was pleasant”. The day after, his company was again targeted.
The following day father and son spoke. It was a testy conversation. “In the athlete’s village they have very little idea of what’s happening outside,” says Andrew. “Athletes turn off their social media and disconnect. I explained to Mack that while I fully support his stance, he just needs to be mindful that these things have flow-on implications. It’s the only time we’ve had a serious disagreement.”
“But if nobody stands up, nothing changes,” says Cheryl. “I get that,” replies Andrew, turning to address his wife directly. “But he just hadn’t considered the full implications.”
Mack’s silent snub again made global news. It also set off a chain reaction. A few days later British swimmer Duncan Scott, who was placed joint third in the 200m freestyle, also refused to join Sun for pictures on the winner’s podium or to shake his hand. Sun confronted Scott and called him a “loser”. Scott and Mack received official warnings from FINA, and both were overwhelmed by death threats from Sun’s fans on social media.
Craig Jackson, Mack’s coach, wasn’t in South Korea that night. He recalls a conversation with Mack a week before the championships that suggested his charge was stewing over the issue of clean sport, and might have been pondering a protest. “I don’t recall the exact words,” Jackson says. “But he didn’t rule it out... We’d spoken a lot about clean sport, and I knew his position. He’s true to his values.” He watched Mack’s protest at the medal presentation from his lounge. “To be honest I agree 100 per cent with the statement he’s making but as a coach I’m sitting there going, ‘You know, I’d prefer you didn’t do that.’”
Mack was well aware of the burden borne by his family after the comment about Sun in Rio. Why then, having poked the dragon and felt the heat, go for Sun again in South Korea? “It says something about his laser-like focus on swimming as well as he can and as fast as he can, and his feelings about fairness in his sport,” Andrew reflects. “And I think he is insulated from a lot of things. One day he’ll have a family of his own and he’ll look back with a better appreciation of how much background support he had.” Mack later spelt out what the protest was, and wasn’t, about: “This isn’t a China-Australia thing. This isn’t a China versus the world thing. This is a principle in the way the sport is governed and controlled.”
In February this year FINA’s decision to clear Sun was overturned on an appeal from the World Anti-Doping Authority to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which slapped Sun with an eight-year suspension. The unanimous verdict was a blow to FINA’s prestige and authority, and to Sun and his family’s fortunes. And it was a stunning vindication of Mack Horton’s stance.
Andrew Horton is inclined to view Sun – an only child with boyish movie-star looks who is unafraid to show his emotions in victory or in loss – as the “victim” of an enormously powerful system with a vast global reach. He points to a recent post from Ming Yang, made after her son’s eight-year ban, in which she alleges an official cover-up over his 2014 doping penalty and rages against his legal team at the CAS hearing. Chinese authorities had initially kept Sun’s three-month suspension in 2014 under wraps, revealing it to the public after he had competed in the Asian Games of September that year. In her since deleted post, Ming Yang alleges that the Chinese Swimming Association manipulated the timing of the news so that his results at the Asian Games – three gold and one silver – would remain intact.
In her post Ming Yang gives a touching insight into the family life of a Chinese swimming star: “I couldn’t sleep at night, powerless and helpless. My son struggled in the swimming pool for more than 20 years, and was strangled by power and lies.”
Even at the age of 10, before swimming had taken hold of his life, Mack Horton was unusually attuned to the spirit of fair play. “This is a kid who as a young basketball player used to throw the ball to players on the other team who he thought weren’t getting a fair go,” recalls his father. “Needless to say, he didn’t get very far with basketball.”
In another life Mack’s sensitivity to injustice might have propelled him into an altruistic profession, but his mother’s feeling for water had a large bearing on his passion for the pool. When Cheryl first started dating the man she would marry – both hail from Perth – a big moment in their courtship was her discovery of his family’s pool. “I could never get her out of the water,” Andrew recalls. “Cheryl and the boys just love the water: the feeling of it flowing over their bodies. It’s in their DNA. It’s like a drug.”
Asked if she recalls how she passed on this passion to her youngest son, Cheryl makes a dunking motion. “He was a reluctant swimmer,” she laughs. “Scared of the water. But once he put his head under he loved it. He couldn’t stop.”
By 2008, 12-year-old Mack was showing great promise – he had the hunger and what his father describes as the “natural metrics of a world-class swimmer”. Even then, though, Andrew wasn’t sure if Mack knew what he was letting himself in for: the pain as well as, just perhaps, the fame. “Do you really want this?” he asked his son one day. Mack turned towards him with a “deadset straight in the eyes” gaze. “But Dad, you don’t seem to understand,” he said. “When I swim I feel like I’m flying. And the faster I swim the better it feels.” Andrew felt his chest tighten, as if he had seen his future. He called Cheryl to say, “We’re going to have to get used to this. It’s not going to go away. It’s going to need the support of the whole family.”
“I knew it would have a huge impact,” he tells me. “Swimming can be brutal on families.” And yet Mack “loved the toughness”, Andrew says. “The pain was nothing to him.” He wanted it so badly that some time in his 13th year he pasted the world record time for the 1500m freestyle on his ceiling. The Hortons like to think of themselves as an “ordinary” family; in their pursuit of normality they’ve banished swimming trophies and photos – even swimming as a conversation topic – from the family home. But they’ve kept the old 1500m record on the ceiling of Mack’s room. “We kept telling him as he was growing up that he was an ordinary person who did some extraordinary things,” says Andrew. The desire to ground the child who was flying in the pool is one reason Andrew and Cheryl felt no shame forcing their myopic son onto the tennis court from time to time. “It was a way of bringing home to him that he was just a mug like the rest of us.”
The way Andrew tells it, Mack’s alma mater, Caulfield Grammar, approached him in January last year for guidance with its new $25 million aquatic centre. Both father and son were chuffed by the idea. Andrew was on good terms with the school and he, together with Craig Jackson, who was asked for his expertise in high performance swimming programs, offered their help. “For most of the year we were talking with the school once or twice a week,” he recalls. “Mack and I also were participating in school events.”
But around October – three months after Mack’s protest in Gwangju and coincidentally the same month Cheryl found a bucketload of glass in the family pool – Andrew and Craig felt the school had cooled towards them. Calls that were once answered promptly were now ignored. Around this time, Andrew believes, the school’s contract with its Nanjing campus in China, which hosts Caulfield Grammar’s Year 9 students each year for a five-week program, came up for renegotiation. The school’s Wikipedia entry makes no mention of Mack Horton in its entry on sporting alumni. Instead it notes the achievements of Chris Judd and John Schultz – Brownlow Medallists – and John Landy, who held the men’s mile record in the 1950s.
In February this year, after media reports alleged that Caulfield Grammar had scrapped plans to name its aquatic centre after Mack Horton, principal Ashleigh Martin moved to defuse the issue, labelling the reports incorrect. “The school has not started a process for naming the facility after any individual, or decided at this time if it will be named after any individual,” the statement read. “Caulfield Grammar School and its community have great pride, respect and admiration for Mack Horton, as both an Olympic swimmer and as a Caulfield Grammarian.”
While Andrew points out that “swimming fast doesn’t entitle you to have a building named after you”, he has at least one powerful ally in Gina Rinehart, Swimming Australia’s patron. “Like many Australians I was very surprised in relation to Caulfield Grammar, as any school should be thrilled to bits to be able to have Mack as alumni,” she tells me by email. “I did ask his parents if they would like me to write to the school to mention this on Mack’s behalf, but they did not wish this, saying Mack’s focus is on training.”
Things have changed dramaticall y for the Hortons since Sun Yang was given the eight-year ban. The “hate” has lost much of its heat. Sun, disgraced, has been derided online by many of his former fans; Mack, once widely vilified, has been publicly vindicated. Andrew, who claims to have much sympathy for Sun and his parents, shares, at the very least, something of their pain as families dedicated to their athletically elite offspring.
Mack Horton was prepared to make a stand for clean sport. But there is a pyrrhic quality to his moral victory, for it has taken a heavy toll on family, friends, neighbours and a largely invisible web of support. “It’s been a grand adventure,” reflects Andrew. “But it’s certainly not what we anticipated when we chose to encourage our children in sport.”