Sun Yang: Polarising figure or gentle giant?

Coach reveals softer side to China’s three-time Olympic champion

Three-time swimming Olympic champion Sun Yang has been called may things during his stellar career: High flyer, golden boy, controversial, but gentle giant?

That’s what his coach eluded to during their successful campaign at the Asian Games, where the Chinese icon has already won three gold medals.

"He's actually a very sensitive guy," said Australian Denis Cotterell. "He's very emotional and he gets upset by a lot of the things that are said and written about him because a lot of it just isn't true."


More popular than Usain Bolt?

The 2m superstar is HUGE in China, and commands popularity at home on a level with badminton player Lin Dan. Sun’s 32.5 million followers on Weibo certainly verifies that.

As a comparison, Usain Bolt has has a mere Facebook following of 19 million!

One look at Sun Yang’s impressive medal collection may shed some light on his popularity.

The 26-year-old first propelled to global stardom in swimming when he broke the 1500m world record at the 2011 World Championships.

Sun continued this momentum at London 2012, delivering 400 and 1500 metre gold medals on the biggest stage of all.

New 400m Olympic Freestyle record for China's Yang | London 2012 Replays

China's Sun Yang beats the Olympic record as he takes gold in the men's 400...

Back home in China, 'Sun-mania' reached its pinnacle, as he had become the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold in swimming.

Four years later in Rio, Sun secured another gold medal to become the first swimmer in history to clinch Olympic titles in the 200, 400 and 1500 metre freestyle events.

He has also claimed nine-time world titles and is an eight-time Asian Games-champion.


Achievements marred by controversy

But Sun’s remarkable success hasn’t come without incident.

The edginess that has led the Chinese giant to amazing achievements as a sportsman has landed him in trouble outside the pool.

In 2015 Yang’s blunt remarks about the Japanese national anthem caused diplomatic tension between the two nations.

The Hangzhou-born athlete was also banned for three months after failing a doping test.

Sun was using a prescribed heart-medication that had been added to the banned-list fourth months before he tested positive, but claims it was an innocent mistake.

Sun has also irked officials at home, spending one week in a detention centre for a driving offence.

"A very proud man"

Sun's offences do not portray his true personality, according to Cotterell, who worked with him for years.

"He was under so much pressure at Rio but he doesn't want to let anyone down," he said.

"He's a very proud man and he treats his position of being the number one sports star in a country that size very seriously." - Dennis Cotterell, Sun's part-time coach

In 2014 Sun considered quitting the sport after being vilified by fans, and some rivals, for his doping ban.

With sponsors queuing up to ensure his financial security, walking away would have been an easy decision.

Doubling efforts towards Tokyo 2020

Sun is one of the world's most consistent swimmers and decided to recommit to the sport.

Of particular note is his decision to focus to the time-consuming long-distance events, despite his past success in the sprints.

His performances towards Tokyo might dictate which name he will be given next.