Zhang Lin elevated to iconic status in China

BEIJING: Zhang Lin's record-breaking exploits in the men's 800m freestyle at the world swimming championships was top news in China Thursday as he drew comparisons to icons Yao Ming and Liu Xiang.

Predictions by his coach that Zhang will win China's second-ever men's swimming gold medal at a major international championship in Sunday's 1,500m freestyle also got prominent press here.

Zhang clinched the first world swimming gold by a Chinese man late Wednesday in Rome.

His performance was all the more remarkable for slicing six-and-a-half seconds off the previous world record of 7 minutes 38.65 seconds held by Australian great Grant Hackett.

Zhang's swim was replayed throughout the day on China Central Television's sports channel, while Internet news sites were awash with the 22-year-old's achievements.

"In the weak area of China's men's swimming, this result should be greatly cherished and in certain ways surpasses the gold medal performance at the Athens Olympics of Liu Xiang," the China News Service said.

"Of course the status and ability of today's Zhang Lin cannot be compared with Liu Xiang, but ... Zhang Lin has the hope of becoming the heir to Liu Xiang and Yao Ming as another 'national icon' of China's sporting world." Liu was the first-ever Chinese male to win a sprinting Olympic gold medal, while Yao is an All Star centre in the National Basketball Association, the world's top basketball league.

"Zhang Lin winning the 800m championship is a very important win and this will set a firm basis for him to attack the 1,500m championship," Zhang's coach, Zhang Yadong, was quoted by Sina.com's sports website as saying.

"I think that in the 1,500m he is capable of winning another gold and there is a great possibility he will break the world record." Zhang seized the lead from Tunisia's Olympic 1,500m free champion Oussama Mellouli at the 200m mark and never gave it back. Canadian Ryan Cochrane was third.

"I'm more than five seconds quicker than Hackett's record and I'm still surprised," Zhang said. "I can't believe it." Earlier, he finished third in the 400m freestyle, behind German Paul Biedermann and Mellouli.

Zhang became the first Chinese swimmer allowed to train outside the country when he went to Australia to work with Hackett's former coach Denis Cotterell late in 2007.

He has credited Cotterell for the 400m freestyle silver medal he won at the 2008 Beijing Games.