The following is the first in a series of articles on rival athletes in South Korea’s favorite events at the London 2012 Olympic Games. ― Ed.
The men’s 400-meter freestyle event of the London Olympics is likely to boil down to a showdown between Park Tae-hwan of South Korea and Sun Yang of China.
The Korean star swimmer brought his country its first ever gold medal in Olympic swimming and seeks his second straight title in London.
Sun, a long-distance world champion, has moved into the spotlight as he has improved his 400m freestyle record in domestic competitions, emerging as the toughest challenge to Park, though the event is not his favorite.
Park and Sun are to compete in the men’s 200-meter, 400-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle in the 2012 Olympics. Of the three, the 400m race will likely become the most riveting with the two rivals, considering 23-year-old Park eyes his second consecutive title in the event after the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Its final is scheduled to start on July 29 at 3:50 p.m. Korean time.
Korea’s Park Tae-hwan (left) and China’s Sun Yang (Yonhap News)
In the Beijing Olympics four years ago, the Korean swimmer beat 25-year-old Chinese swimmer Zhang Lin to win the 400m freestyle. Park was behind Zhang in the heat stage, but in the final came in first with 3 minutes 41.86 seconds, bringing the nation its first ever gold medal in Olympic swimming in 44 years.
Runner-up Zhang was less than a second behind, marking 3:42.44.
In the four years since, Zhang faded and Sun Yang emerged. Zhang was left out of the Chinese swimming squad for the London Games.
The 21-year-old Sun set a world record of 14:34.14 in 1,500 meters in the Shanghai 2011 World Championships. In the long-distance event, Park trails Sun by more than 13 seconds. Park’s best is 14:47.38.
Sun has set his sight on the gold medal in the 400m freestyle most favored by Park. He seeks redemption in London from the Korean swimmer.
Sun once broke Park’s 400m freestyle record. In the national championship last year, he marked 3:40.29, but in internationals, Park has never been outpaced by Sun in terms of record, though they have never competed with each other directly.
In the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Games, Park captured the gold with 3:41.53, and Sun the silver with 3:42.47. In the Shanghai 2011 World Championships, Park beat Sun again 3:42.04 to 3:43.24 and bagged the 400m freestyle gold medal. In the Melbourne 2007 World Championships, Park clinched the title with 3:44.30, while Sun was eliminated in heat eight for placing 32nd overall with 3:56.11.
In the Beijing 2008 Olympics, where Park beat Zhang in the 400m freestyle, Sun failed to advance to the final by ranking 28th with 3:50.90.
In the Rome 2009 World Championship, Park outpaced Sun 3:46.04 to 3:47.51, though both failed to reach the final.
However, Sun marked 3:42.31, the world’s fastest of the season, in a domestic Olympic trial in April this year. Park set the second best of the season, 3:44.22, in the Mel Zajac Jr. International Canada Cup in Vancouver in May.
In light of physique, Sun has an advantage over Park. He is 198 centimeters tall and weighs 81 kilograms, while Park is 183cm and 71kg. Sun has longer limbs, and bigger hands and feet. But Park is evaluated to have an excellent control of pace, a key factor of the 400m race requiring both rapid reflexes and physical endurance.
By Chun Sung-woo (firstname.lastname@example.org)