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By Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The sporting future of swimmer Sun Yang, one of China's most celebrated athletes, will be decided next week in Switzerland when his appeal against an eight-year doping ban is heard at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The hearing, which is scheduled to run from May 25 to 27, will determine not only whether the 29-year-old multiple Olympic and world champion swims in the Tokyo Games but almost certainly whether he ever races again.
Requests from Reuters for comment from Sun and the Chinese Swimming Association about the hearing went unanswered.
The case will be closely watched by Sun's massive fan base in China as well as his rivals, including Duncan Scott and Mack Horton who staged protests against the Chinese swimmer at the last world championships.
Australian Horton dubbed Sun a "drug cheat" at the 2016 Rio Olympics because China's first male Olympic swimming champion had served a three-month ban for the use of a banned substance in 2014.
Worse was to follow for Sun after a chaotic out-of-competition doping test in 2018, which ultimately resulted in CAS handing down the eight-year ban in February 2020.
That decision came only after the international arbitration body had accepted an appeal from the World Anti-Doping Agency against a decision by swimming's world governing body FINA to let Sun off with a caution.
In December last year, Sun took his case to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court which upheld his challenge against the CAS panel, ruling that one of the judges had exhibited possible bias against Chinese people.
As a result, CAS will rehear the case, in private and via videolink, with a new three-member panel.
The hearing will look again at what happened during the test in September 2018, when Sun and members of his entourage smashed vials containing his blood samples.
The swimmer argued during the previous CAS hearing, which was marred by translation problems, that the testers had failed to prove their identity and behaved in an unprofessional manner.
The sanctions imposed by CAS were automatically lifted after the Swiss court's December decision so Sun would be free to swim in his fourth Olympics and defend his 200m freestyle title if cleared by the new hearing.
Sun did not swim in China's Olympic trials but would automatically qualify for the Tokyo team courtesy of his 200m and 400m gold medals at the 2019 world championships.
Horton refused to share a podium with Sun in Gwangju after finishing second in the 400m, a gesture emulated by British bronze medallist Scott after the 200m final.
Both swimmers faced a barrage of online abuse from Sun's compatriots for their protests, accused of anti-Chinese sentiment and racism.
While Sun has not been promoting the Games along with team mates Xu Jiayu and Zhang Yufei, he is continuing training as normal at home in Hangzhou, according to local media reports.
Sun's fans, however, have thronged to social media to support him, saying he has achieved "unprecedented success" and was a "legend" of Chinese swimming.
One fan called 'Love Story' wrote in a blog hosted by Chinese ecommerce platform NetEase that an eight-year ban for Sun, who would be 37 when the suspension expires, would be a devastating blow for Chinese swimming.
"No matter what the future is, we must support Sun Yang, hoping that he can be strong and have the courage to go on and not be crushed by the enemy."
(Reporting by Farah Master, editing by Ed Osmond)