WHEN PARK TAE HWAN out-touched Zhang Lin for gold in the men's 400-meter freestyle on Sunday morning, the medalists set off two national celebrations. The 18-year-old Park had won South Korea's first Olympic gold medal in swimming, the 21-year-old Zhang the first medal of any color by a male Chinese swimmer. The following morning, Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, 25, would win the 100-meter breaststroke in a world record time of 58.91 seconds, confirming his place as one of the world's top swimmers at any distance.
Michael Phelps notwithstanding, the early buzz at the Water Cube was this new Asian challenge to the traditional U.S.-Euro-Aussie axis of aquatic supremacy.
With his victory, Park atoned for his embarrassing Olympic debut at the Athens Games, when, as a 14-year-old, he was disqualified for a false start in the 400 freestyle preliminary heat and hid in a bathroom for two hours after the race. He would rebound, winning three golds at the 2006 Asian Games and the world title in the 400 free a year later. Now he is a pitchman in his homeland for bottled water, a cellphone carrier and a bank. That celebrity is certain to grow in the wake of a victory that has already assumed epic proportions. "We have been a sports-loving country many years," says Jeong Gyu Mook, a reporter for MBC Korea TV, "but this is the best result in the history of Korean sports."
Reaction in China to Lin's silver was nearly as effusive. There is little acknowledgment among the Chinese of the five gold medals that their women swimmers won in the 1990s, before they found themselves at the center of a doping scandal. Lin's heroics, however, are a source of national pride. "It is a great breakthrough for Chinese sport," sohu.com, the Chinese Olympic Committee website, proclaimed on Sunday. "The impact of Lin's performance could be as great as that of Liu Xiang, [the only male track gold medalist in Chinese history] in track and field."
Since winning the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke golds in Athens, Kitajima has flaunted a self-assurance that belies the modest comportment more typical of Asian athletes. While other swimmers wave to the crowd in prerace introductions, Kitajima often muscles up and strikes a pose. Kitajima predicted four years ago he would be the new face of global swimming. Not yet, but the prospect of the Far East as a swimming hotbed is no longer far-fetched.