Red Dragon keen to regain total supremacy

On their home turf two years ago, Japan pricked the Chinese pride in Asian track and field, almost nudging the giants from the top spot. The Red Dragon doesn’t take such slights lightly and its quest to soar high again is set to highlight the 20th Asian Athletics Championships beginning here on Wednesday.

China entered the Asian championships in 1979 and four years later, displaced Japan from the top. Their winning run continued till Kobe 2011 when Japan seemed to have edged ahead, winning 11 gold, 10 silver and 11 bronze to China’s 10-12-5. But the disqualification of Kazakhstan’s Olga Tereshkova in the women’s 400M allowed the Chinese to move to 11 gold and retain their top spot, only just.

A clean sweep of the relays on the final day had fuelled the Japanese charge then but this time, with a comparatively weaker squad, they will find the going tough at the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex. China too have kept a few of their leading athletes of the season at home but their depth in many events is such that even without the big guns, they can flex their muscles to intimidate the rest.

The Japanese disinterest is more pronounced in the men’s sprints where the season’s leaders have been kept away, including the exciting prospect Yoshihide Kiryu, who ran a sensational 10.01 in April. In such a scenario, the battle could be between China’s defending champion in the 100M, Su Bingtian and Qatar’s Samuel Francis, the Asian record holder at 9.99 seconds.

The presence of many leading athletes from West Asia – mostly imports from Africa – will elevate the middle and long distance events to another level. Bahrain and Qatar is set to fight out this battle, with Kuwait adding its own champions like Muhammad Mutlak Al Azemi, the 800-1500M double winner last time.

Bahrain will be a force to reckon with in women’s distance events too. Olympic bronze medallist and former world champion Maryam Yusuf Jamal was to spearhead their challenge in the 800 and 1500 metres but she has pulled out since then. Despite her absence, Bahrain has enough riches in the distance lane.

With Liu Xiang fading away from the scene, China will be looking for a matching talent in the 110M hurdles and the onus is on Fan Jiang (best of 13.50 this season) to keep their dominance in this event. The withdrawal of Mutaz Essa Barshim has taken the sheen off the high jump event.

Barshim, with his world leading 2.40 this season, would have been the cynosure but with a back injury hampering his preparations, he backed out, leaving the field open for a likely Chinese conquest. India’s Jithin Thomas, who has a best of 2.21 this season, can hope for a minor medal if the others fail to measure up.

Women’s high jump, in contrast, has a classy field. Marina Aitova of Kazakhstan, with her recent 1.95, is the leading lady and with Nadiya Dusanova (Uzbekistan, 1.93) and Miyuki Fukumoto (Japan, 1.92) will raise the bar while Sahana Kumari, the Indian challenger, has not reached her best of 1.92 this season.

The women’s events are where the Chinese normally tower over the rest. And they look good to do that this time too. Japan though have a clutch of top-notchers here, capable of upsetting the Chinese applecart. Sprinter Chisato Fukushima, the Asian Games 100-200 double winner, leads their quest here.

That could be just an aberration as Li Lingwei, former Asian record holder in javelin, pole vaulter Li Ling who has cleared 4.50M this season, Olympic finalist in shot put Liu Xiangrong (the 2007 champion), and hammer thrower Wang Zhang (best of 72.46 this season) all look capable of dominating their events, extending the Chinese stay at the top for two more years.

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