By Nick Mulvenney
JAKARTA, Aug 18 : China’s medal machine Sun Yang heads a handful of reigning Olympic champions, and host of aspirant Tokyo 2020 gold medallists, looking to make a statement in the Asian Games pool over the next week.
While the Asiad does not often provide world class competition in the big Olympic sports – Kosuke Kitajima in 2002 was the last swimmer to post a world record time at the Games – it can provide valuable experience for aspiring champions.
Sun, Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan and Japan’s Kosuke Hagino all won one or more golds in the Incheon pool four years ago and followed up with Olympic titles in Rio in 2016.
Japanese breaststroke specialist Rie Kaneto, Asia’s other Olympic swimming champion in Brazil, retired earlier this year but the other four will all compete in Jakarta.
China and Japan are the unquestioned continental swimming superpowers and shared 34 of the 38 swimming gold medals at the last Asian Games with Schooling and Balandin accounting for the other four.
Schooling, who skipped the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, will have a heavy schedule as the mainstay of the Singapore relay team and having added the 50 metres freestyle to his programme.
The 23-year-old has shed four kilogrammes in weight and is likely to be in better shape for his 100m butterfly title defence than he was when he was beaten by India’s Virahawal Khade at the Singapore championships earlier this year.
Balandin, who like Schooling is the first athlete from his nation to win Olympic gold in any sport, swept the breaststroke titles in Incheon but will face a strong challenge in Jakarta from rising talent Ippei Watanabe.
The 21-year-old Japanese confirmed his status as the form swimmer in the 200m breaststroke by taking the Pan Pacific title earlier this month in an event for which he also holds the world record.
His compatriot Hagino will be looking to repeat his 200m-400m medley double from four years ago but will face stiff competition from compatriot Daiya Seto and China’s Wang Shun.
Sun, one of two world champion swimmers in Jakarta, will be the first of the Olympic title holders to get the chance to add to his medal haul in Sunday’s 200m freestyle final.
The 26-year-old nabbed three golds in Incheon four years ago on his return to competition after a doping ban and has even higher expectations for Jakarta.
Slated to race in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle events as well as the 4x200m freestyle relay, Sun could become the fifth swimmer to win five gold medals in one Asian Games.
The other reigning world champion in Jakarta, Xu Jiayu, is also targeting five golds and gets his campaign underway on Sunday, his 23rd birthday, in the event in which he struck gold in Budapest last year, the 100 backstroke.
As with all the top swimmers, Jakarta is merely a staging post on the Olympic road from Rio to Tokyo for Xu.
“The Asian Games is a kind of mid-term exam for us,” he told Chinese media. “Our final goal is the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.”