LONDON (Reuters) - Park Tae-hwan was reinstated to the 400 meters freestyle final on Saturday when he won an appeal against his disqualification after Michael Phelps came within inches of making a shock early exit in a sensational start to the Olympic swimming competition.
Park, who became a national hero in South Korea when he won the gold medal in Beijing four years ago, easily won his morning heat only to be disqualified for a false start.
Although he did not leave the blocks early, technical officials ruled that he had moved before the starter’s gun. The South Korean Federation lodged a protest with the sport’s world governing body, which it eventually won, allowing Park to compete in Saturday’s final.
It is rare for swimmers to be reinstated after being disqualified but not unique. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, American Aaron Peirsol was reinstated as the winner of the 200 backstroke after winning an appeal against his disqualification.
There was almost another sensation when Phelps had to battle hard just to reach the final of the men’s 400 individual medley, getting his hand on the wall just in the nick of time.
Phelps won the event at each of the past two Olympics but only scraped into the final as the eighth and slowest qualifier.
“I didn’t expect those guys to go that fast in the heats,” said Phelps. “I think the only thing that matters is getting a spot. You can’t get the gold medal from the morning.”
The American won his heat but only after making a desperate lunge on his final stroke to pip Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, who won the silver in Beijing.
The difference between the two was just 0.07 seconds, but the tiny margin could not have been more significant with Phelps sneaking into the final and Cseh missing out altogether.
Ryan Lochte, the world champion and favorite to win the gold medal in the final later on Saturday, was third fastest overall after Japan’s Kosuke Hagino set the quickest time.
Lochte’s clash with Phelps has been billed as one of the great rivalries of the Games and while both were below their best in the heats, they were still expected to slug it out in the final.
“It didn’t feel so good, but that was my first race, and my first race is always the worst one,” Lochte said. “It’s a tough field. But he’s (Phelps) in.”
Park, a national hero in his homeland, locked himself in a bathroom for two hours when he was disqualified for false start at Athens in 2004 and was confused when told he had done it again.
“I don’t know why I was disqualified, I will have to speak to my coach,” he told reporters before winning his appeal.
His reinstatement set up a mouthwatering showdown with Sun Yang who is bidding to become the first Chinese man to win an Olympic swimming title.
Sun set the fastest overall time, just ahead of American Peter Vanderkaay, while another of his big dangers, German world record holder Paul Biedermann, missed out on the final after finishing 12th overall.
Elizabeth Beisel sailed into the final of the women’s 400m individual medley with the fastest qualifying time.
The American, who is looking to add the Olympic gold to the world title she won in Shanghai last year, was just 0.05 ahead of China’s Ye Shiwen, setting the stage for an epic final that could rival the men’s event.
Australia’s Stephanie Rice, the defending Olympic champion and world record holder, got into the final in seventh place after saving her energy for the final.
“There are some really hot times,” said Rice.
“These are races where you have to be quick to make the final because everyone wants to be in there, but at the same time you have to try and conserve something because it is such a taxing race.”
Australia stormed into the final of the women’s 4x100 freestyle relay when they clocked the fastest time ahead of the United States, Netherlands and China, although they all rested their best swimmers from the preliminaries.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury