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All eyes, especially in Asia, are on the competition between Chinese Sun Yang and South Korean Park Tae-hwan. Chen Xiangfeng reports in London.
Rising Chinese swimmer Sun Yang and his South Korean counterpart Park Tae-hwan are virtually doppelgangers.
Both are considered cool and trendy. Both are often seen with black-rimmed glasses perched on their noses and huge headphones covering their ears. And both frequently travel to Australia and have trained with big-name coaches.
The two are youth idols and media darlings in their homelands.
They're set to face off after Park, the reigning Olympic men's 400m freestyle champion, announced last month that he'll swim the 1,500m - the event in which Sun holds the world record - in London.
It's one of the most anticipated rivalries in the Olympic pool, after that between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Sun - who, at 20, is two years younger than Park - says: "(Park) is my idol, but I'm not scared at all of him. I'm better than before. Both my coach and I feel I'm stronger."
The Korean brought his country its first Olympic gold in swimming in the 400m four years ago in Beijing and seeks his second title in London. Park beat then 25-year-old Chinese swimmer Zhang Lin to win in Beijing, while Sun failed to advance to the final, ranking 28th in 3 min 50.90 sec.
Sun improved dramatically in the last two years and stunned the world by breaking Australian Grant Hackett's 10-year-old world record en route to gold in the 1,500m at the 2011 Shanghai World Championships. But he was again foiled in his attempt to usurp Park in the 400m and came in second to the Korean in Shanghai. Sun also came in second in the event at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games.
Sun regards the Shanghai loss to Park as a valuable lesson.
"I learned how to face defeat," Sun said recently at a training camp at Bath University.
"It makes me a stronger person coming to London."
This season, the strapping Chinese has managed to close the gap with Park by clocking the fastest time in the event at a national meet in April.
Meanwhile, Park seems unconcerned about the challenge from Sun, whom he's never lost against in the 400m in international competitions.
He says he's more concerned about breaking the world record.
"This isn't about a competition with Sun," Park told the Korean Times.
"What I think is more important is to win the record battle with myself."
While his 400m prospects are uncertain, Sun is widely considered a shoo-in to take the gold in the 1,500m, in which he set a world record of 14:34.14 in Shanghai.
Park, who has been putting more effort into shorter-distance events in recent years, trails Sun by more than 13 seconds with a best time of 14:47.38.
Apart from their specialty events, the duo will extend their competition to the 200m, in which they have an outside medal chance - especially Park.
Park's explosive stardom at home after the Beijing Olympic Games could also be replicated by Sun in China, if he wins his country's first Olympic men's swimming gold.
He is already hailed as China's next superstar and is poised to join the ranks of former NBA All-Star player Yao Ming, track hero Liu Xiang and French Open champion Li Na.
The 400m final is scheduled for July 28, the first day of the Olympic swimming competition.
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Photos by AP, illustration by Tian Chi / China Daily
(China Daily 07/26/2012 page10)