Aussie swimmer Mack Horton's protest against Chinese rival and accused drug cheat Sun Yang could get super awkward for Gina Rinehart

Mack Horton of Australia and Sun Yang of China (Quinn Rooney / Staff / Getty Images)
  • Australian Mack Horton has sparked controversy at the swimming world championships in Korea, refusing to stand on the podium alongside Chinese opponent and accused drug cheat Sun Yang.
  • Sun responded that Horton is guilty of “disrespecting China”, while the national manager of China’s swimming team has previously criticised the Aussie swimmer for a “malicious personal attack” against his Chinese rival.
  • Hancock Prospecting, the Gina Rinehart-controlled mining company that is the headline sponsor of Swimming Australia, has declined to comment on the controversy. Hancock has extensive business interests in China.

When Australian swimmer Mack Horton snubbed his Chinese rival Sun Yang at the world championships in South Korea on Sunday, he probably knew he was wading into controversy — but he may not have expected to cross Gina Rinehart, Australia’s second-richest person and the owner of Swimming Australia’s marquee sponsor, Hancock Prospecting.

Hancock Prospecting’s multi-decade partnership with Swimming Australia goes well beyond your typical sporting sponsorship.

Despite not being a consumer-facing brand, the mining company has its brand splashed all over anything to do with Aussie swimming. On the official Swimming Australia website, the ‘Hancock Prospecting’ banner is almost as prominent as the sport’s own logo, while Rinehart is described as “part of [the] team” and “part of the swimming family”.

But alongside the marketing and PR opportunities that arise from backing an Aussie sport also comes potential collateral damage from any controversies — and Horton’s protest is one that might hurt Hancock right in the iron ore.

On Sunday, Horton finished second to China’s swimming megastar, Sun Yang, in the 400-metres freestyle race, making headlines at the subsequent medal ceremony by refusing to stand alongside the Chinese national on the podium or pose with him for photos.

The snub is being widely reported as a statement on Sun’s drug record. The Chinese swimmer served a three-month ban for testing positive to a banned substance in 2014, Reuters reported, and is also now the subject of a dispute between the World Anti Doping Agency and the International Swimming Federation (FINA) over more recent doping allegations.

Horton has been praised by some of his pro swimming colleagues David McKeon and Melanie Wright.

He also received a standing ovation from fellow competitors in the athlete’s village following the protest, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

But the Chinese authorities are unlikely to respond as warmly.

In 2016, the national team’s manager Xu Qi took aim at Horton in comments to Chinese government-owned news agency Xinhua, telling them the Aussie swimmer was guilty of a “malicious personal attack” after he described Sun as a “drug cheat”.

Xinhua’s coverage of the Gwangju championships makes no mention of the controversy, instead talking up Sun’s “fourth straight world title”.

But The Sydney Morning Herald has anticipated that the “blowback from China will be strong”. And Sun himself has taken Horton’s protest as a snub not just of him personally but of the Chinese nation.

“Disrespecting me is okay but disrespecting China was very unfortunate and I felt sorry about that,” Sun reportedly said at a press conference after the medal ceremony.

With that comment, Sun has elevated the spat from a personal rivalry between athletes to an international feud with a political bent.

And that could get awkward for Swimming Australia and its major sponsor.

As one of the world’s most serious iron ore miners, Hancock Prospecting does a lot of business in and with China, including with state-owned enterprises. The company’s flagship Roy Hill iron ore mine in the Pilbara is part-owned by the China Steel Corporation. Hancock claims it has shipped tens of millions of tonnes of Aussie iron ore, and China has been one of the major recipients.

It has has also won a Business Excellence Award from the Australia-China Chamber of Commerce and Westpac for its beef production business, with Rinehart saying Hancock “worked over many years build strong and positive relations with our Chinese financiers, suppliers and customers”.

A spokesperson for Hancock Prospecting declined to comment on the Sun Yang controversy, but with angry Chinese social media users reportedly going after Horton since the protest, the miner will be hoping those positive relations remain positive.

The incident could also get awkward for the Australian Olympic Committee, which lists Chinese retailer Alibaba among its corporate sponsors.

While making clear the Gwangju swimming championships are not an Olympic event, AOC CEO Matt Carroll came fairly close to defending Horton in an interview with Macquarie Sports Radio on Monday.

“Mack Horton is obviously an athlete of great conviction and we respect him for that conviction,” Carroll said. “Mack enjoys our support for clean athletes and taking a strong stance against anti-doping in sport.”

An AOC spokesperson told Business Insider Australia he is “not aware of any negative responses from any corporate partners” like Alibaba, who has also been approached for comment.

The committee and Swimming Australia — which has not responded to requests for comment — have a lot to lose if it doesn’t stay that way.

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