China's Sun Yang launches Asian Games charm offensive

China's Olympic champion Sun Yang showed a softer side to his gnarly public image on Sunday by lavishing compliments on rival Japanese swimmer Kosuke Hagino at the Asian Games.

Sun Yang topped the timesheets in the morning's 200 metres freestyle heats in Jakarta in a leisurely one minute, 47.58 seconds.   -  AFP

China's Olympic champion Sun Yang showed a softer side to his gnarly public image on Sunday by lavishing compliments on rival Japanese swimmer Kosuke Hagino at the Asian Games.

The towering Chinese topped the timesheets in the morning's 200 metres freestyle heats in Jakarta in a leisurely one minute, 47.58 seconds, before being reminded about an unseemly diplomatic row he sparked at the last Asian Games in 2014.

Furious after being ambushed by Hagino in the 200m free in Incheon, Sun branded Japan's national anthem “ugly” — not the first time the three-time Olympic gold medallist has become involved in a war of words.

“Look, I think Hagino is a good guy. The way he swims the individual medley is an inspiration to me. We should be working together to raise the level of Asian swimming,” Sun told reporters.

“Today was a good first swim, very satisfied. The Asian Games isn't the biggest competition perhaps, but it's an important stepping stone towards the world championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”

READ: China’s Sun wins first gold medal of Asian Games

His part-time coach Denis Cotterell said the giant Chinese was pacing himself with further individual races to come in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m free.

“That was just a very safe swim. He was slow off the blocks and just did what he had to do,” the Australian said. “He's got a long programme so it's early days. We'll know more about where he's at at the end of the meet,” added Cotterell.

Hagino, who won the Olympic gold in the 400m individual medley in Rio two years ago, failed to qualify for the 200m freestyle at this year's Asian Games.

Jordan's Khader Baqlah, who has trained alongside American stars Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Lochte at the University of Florida, posted the second quickest time behind Sun in 1:47.60.

Defending champion Daiya Seto qualified fastest for the men's 200m butterfly final in 1:57.23 from fellow Japanese Nao Horomura, who also won his heat in 1:58.06, edging out India's Sajan Prakash.

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“I can definitely go quicker. It was about conserving energy. The key tonight will be to be brave and go for it,” said Seto, who also won Pan Pacific gold in Tokyo, earlier, this month.

China's Xu Jiayu went quickest in the men's 100m backstroke heats, clocking 53.60 seconds, with title-holder Ryosuke Irie of Japan winning his heat in 53.85.

China claimed the top two spots in qualifying for the women's 200m backstroke final, with Liu Yaxin storming through to win her heat in 2:09.52, almost two seconds faster than Peng Xuwei.

Japan went one-two in the women's 100m breaststroke heats with Satomi Suzuki quickest in 1:06.92 from Reona Aoki (1:07.24).

China dominated the swimming competition at the 2014 Asian Games, winning 22 gold medals to 12 for closest rivals Japan.

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'Sun just a big softie'

Sun has all the tools to be the perfect swimmer — the predatory instinct and a two-metre physique that can intimidate before a race has even started.

But, the triple Olympic champion and nine-time world title holder is also one of the most divisive competitors in the pool, a magnet for controversy who seems to upset officials and rivals wherever he goes.

He's been labelled a drug cheat after serving a three-month suspension in 2014 for using a prescribed medication to treat a heart condition, saying that he was unaware it had been added to the banned list.

But, Sun carries on, unfazed by all the kerfuffle and seemingly revelling in his reputation as swimming's bad boy. To those who know him best, nothing could be further from the truth. Sun's part-time coach believes the Chinese superstar is a gentle giant.

“He's actually a very sensitive guy. He's very emotional and he gets upset by a lot of the things that are said and written about him because a lot of it just isn't true,” said Cotterell.

Australian Cotterell has worked with Sun for years and describes him not only as the most dedicated swimmer he's trained, but also one of the most respectful.

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'Nice, sensitive side'

As China's greatest swimmer, Sun is under constant pressure to win every time he dives into the pool. “I get cheesed off when people bring up cheap shots because they don't know what they're talking about,” Cotterell said.

“He's got a really nice, sensitive side and he respects people in the sport much better than the picture that is painted of him.”

Sun considered quitting swimming after the Rio Olympics when he was taunted by some of his rivals over the doping ban, which he insists was nothing more than an innocent mistake.

After winning the 400m and 1,500m freestyle golds at London in 2012, he showed his incredible versatility by taking out the 200m in Brazil.

With nothing to prove and a long list of sponsors ensuring his financial security, he could have walked away from the sport.

But, the 26-year-old decided to refocus his efforts on long-distance events despite finding success in sprints, meaning a lot of extra hours churning through the laps.

At the Asian Games, he has entered the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m as well as the 4x200m relay — part of a process building towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“He was under so much pressure at Rio, but he doesn't want to let anyone down. He's a very proud man and he treats his position of being the number one sports star in a country that size very seriously,” said Cotterell.

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