It was a rollercoaster ride for Korean swimmer Park Tae-hwan, nicknamed, “Marine Boy” after an old television cartoon.
The 22-year-old Olympic champion was disqualified for some unclear reason in the 400-meter freestyle heat, then reinstated about four hours later, and won the silver medal in the finals five hours later.
Day 1 of the London Olympics Saturday saw Park finding it difficult to contain his emotions, perhaps thinking that he could have won if he had not been so emotionally drained by all brouhaha. If he started to cry because of the overwhelming disappointment he thinks he brought to the nation, he should forget about it.
It would have been nice for Park to win back to back. But his silver medal should be taken as nothing less than the gold because he did his best. And there are other races ahead.
It was a loss seen to be from an apparently insurmountable gap he had with the winner on the last stretch of the race.
“It has been a long day for me,” the 22-year-old said through a translator.
“It was very difficult for me in that period between the heats and the finals. I’ve been waiting for this day and there was a lot going on today.”
Park, whose shocking disqualification was annulled by the global governing body, FINA, after Korea filed a protest, got off to a strong start in the final. He was the first to react to the buzzer at 0.67 seconds, and he led the pack for the first 300 meters.
However, China’s Sun Yang, who entered the 400-meter race as favorite with the season’s best record of 3 minutes 42.31 seconds, lived up to his billing. Sun overtook Park in the final stretch to beat his top rival by a large margin for his first Olympic title with a time of 3:40.14, just 0.07 outside the world record of 3:40.07, set by Germany’s Paul Biedermann in 2009.
“I was so eager and impatient to get on the podium,” the Chinese swimmer was quoted as saying.
“Today if I cry it’s really because I worked hard for one year, or even longer. I got up very early and worked very hard. This is a reward for me and my coach, who is not well. After I return he will go through surgery. My parents came. They are really great parents, they gave me so much.”
His maiden Olympic gold medal also marked the 20-year-old’s first victory over Park in an international competition.
Park clocked in at 3:42.06 to win the silver, while American Peter Vanderkaay placed third in 3:44.69.
“I swam really well, it was a little bit of a pity that I came second,” said Park. Had he won, this would have been his second straight Olympic gold in the 400 freestyle and he would have been the first South Korean to defend an Olympic gold in an individual event.
In the morning preliminary, Park touched the wall first in 3:46.68, which qualified him in fourth position, but moments later, found out that he was dumped for a false start, a surprise in that a swimmer can gain almost zero advantage from a faster start in distance races like the 400 freestyle.
“There was a lot going on for me this morning but I swam as well as I could, I have no regrets about this morning,” Park said.
But the “Marine Boy” was unable to contain his emotions and broke into tears during an interview with the Korean press.
Team Korea’s first appeal to FINA’s technical swimming committee was rejected and it took an appeal jury to rule in Park’s favor.
Despite the reinstatement, FINA did not give any answer to the disqualification.
“It’s a very good question,” said FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu. “Human error maybe.”