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Italy's Federica Pellegrini is seen after her 200 meter Freestyle semifinal at the European Swimming Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, Friday, May 25, 2012. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)
Italy's Federica Pellegrini is seen after her 200 meter Freestyle semifinal at the European Swimming Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, Friday, May 25, 2012. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

london 2012

Sex (maybe) and the Italian swim sensation Add to ...

Federica Pellegrini is set to win the glamour sweepstakes among the female swimmers at the London Olympics. The question is whether Italy’s golden girl, diva and sex symbol can win equal fame in the pool.

Pellegrini has been a media sensation for years in Italy, even though she is only 23, and the British and international press in London are in for a treat when they spot her. Tall, tattooed, beautiful and occasionally blond, she is fond of shedding her clothes in photo shoots.

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In 2009, the year after she won gold in the 200-metre freestyle in Beijing, she appeared naked, her entire body painted in gold, on the cover of Vogue. Since then, she has been a regular cover girl in the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, lately appearing naked in the arms of her equally naked boyfriend, Filippo Magnini, the Italian swimmer who is the former 100-metre world freestyle champion.

The duo love to tantalize. Last month, in the Italian gossip magazine Chi, Magnini suggested that he and Pellegrini would avoid sex ahead of Pellegrini’s London swim events, the 200-metre and 400-metre freestyles and two relay races. To which “La Pellegrini,” as she is known in her home country, responded: “Abstinence! Are you mad?”

Glam and titillation mean nothing in the pool. Pellegrini, who has admitted to panic attacks and bronchial spasms, is neither cocky nor arrogant and knows that she faces formidable and potentially crushing competition in London. To wit: Rebecca Adlington of Britain, Camille Muffat of France and Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt of the United States.

The British press, of course, is playing up the rivalry between Adlington and Pellegrini, both of whom will compete in the 400-metre freestyle on July 29. It is bound to be one of the most exciting events of the entire Games. The 400 is a hybrid race, in the sense that it demands equal measures of sprinting and endurance skills, and a lot of strategic thinking.

Pellegrini is more of a sprinter, Adlington more of an endurance swimmer.

Adlington, like Pellegrini, is a phenomenon. She won gold in the 400-metre and 800-metre freestyle in Beijing four years ago and is the 2011 world champion in the 800-metre (Pellegrini does not compete in the 800). But Adlington is not glamorous like her Italian rival, an observation that the sometimes cruel British swimming fans and comedians like to point out.

The low point came not long ago when comedian Frankie Boyle made a nasty jibe on TV about her appearance. Several Twitter users also made nasty remarks about her looks, after which Adlington decided to abandon using Twitter during the Games.

Adlington, who is the same age as Pellegrini, is favoured to repeat her winning Beijing performance in London in the 800-metre freestyle. Where she may come up short is in the 400-metre, where Muffat or Pellegrini are the favourites. The Italian is still the world record holder in the 400-metre, and the French woman has had an amazingly fast year in the same event. That makes Adlington the underdog.

Pellegrini’s times this year in the 400-metre have actually been slower than Adlington’s and Muffat’s, but swim commentators note that Pellegrini did not have to swim like a world champion this year to qualify for the Olympics, because no other Italian swimmer comes even close to her phenomenal speed.

Italy is expected to do fairly well in London. Italian Olympic expert Luciano Barra, using projections based on world-championship rankings, expects Italy to win 32 medals, putting it at the low end of the top 10 nations (and several spots ahead of Canada). But all Italian eyes are on Pellegrini. If she wins gold in either the 200-metre or 400-metre events, Italy will go wild, secure in the knowledge that she can match athletic prowess with her glamour.

Plus, Italians will get to know: Did she or didn’t she before her races?