By Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's most decorated swimmer Sun Yang has vowed to "persist" with his career with an eye on the Paris Olympics after being ruled out of the Tokyo Games by a four-year doping ban handed down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Sun's eight-year ban for doping violations was cut to four years and three months by the Swiss-based court on Tuesday and, with the suspension backdated to early 2020, the 29-year-old will be eligible to return to the pool in May 2024. [L2N2O41KM]
"Actually my body is in great physical condition," Sun, who will be 32 when the Paris Olympics open in July 2024, was quoted as saying in an interview with state owned Chinese online newspaper The Paper.
The triple Olympic and 11-times world champion said that even if eventually he was not able to swim competitively, he would keep working within the sport, possibly as a coach for young athletes.
"Difficulties will only help me grow and make me stronger," he said.
Chinese netizens on Wednesday delivered an outpouring of support for Sun, with news of the court's decision garnering thousands of posts on social media.
"You are the eternal Olympic champion, the world champion, the God of swimming," one fan called 'Stars will shine when things are broken' posted on Chinese social media platform Weibo Corp.
The Olympic 200 metres freestyle champion was banned after he and members of his entourage were found to have smashed vials containing blood samples taken at an out of competition test in September 2018.
A highly controversial figure in swimming and one of China's most celebrated athletes, Sun has constantly maintained his innocence while questioning the credentials and identity of the testers.
"It is undeniable that Sun Yang's previous honour is still worthwhile. For sure, we have won glory for our country and deserve to be respected!" wrote another user called 'Ice soldier'.
Last December, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court upheld Sun's challenge against the CAS panel on the grounds that one judge had exhibited possible bias against Chinese people.
The new CAS panel, chaired by a different president, said the circumstances surrounding the sample collection merited a period of "ineligibility at the lower end of the range".
(Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong; additional reporting by the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)