There is a magical feeling when one watches someone attempting to step into the unknown. Three years ago, one went through such an emotion as Su Bingtian clocked 9.99s and became the first native Asian sprinter to go below 10s for the 100m at the Eugene Grand Prix in the US.
A few weeks ago, the 28-year-old Chinese equalled the Asian record (9.91s) of Qatar’s Nigeria-born Femi Ogunode in Madrid. That made him the eighth fastest runner in the world this year.
With Bingtian breaking what appeared to be a mental barrier, other Asian sprinters have picked up pace too and now, for the first time in history, there are three in the sub-10 club this year. China’s Xie Zhenye, like Bingtian, went under 10s twice recently in France and Switzerland and now has a best of 9.97s while Oman’s Barakat Al-Harthi ran a 9.97s at the West Asian championships in Amman in July.
With Ogunode missing from Qatar’s line-up for Jakarta — his younger brother Tosin is the only 100m entry from that country — native Asians have a chance to reclaim the ‘fastest man’ title at the 18th Asian Games, the biggest multi-event sporting festival after the Olympics, which begins in Jakarta and Palembang in Indonesia on August 18.
With Qatar’s world champion high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, the 2017 International Association of Athletics Federations Athlete of the Year and athletics’ biggest name in the continent, pulling out of the Jakarta Asiad with a knee injury, the men’s 100m will be in the spotlight and has all the ingredients to produce a new Asian record, too.
Three countries from Asia, a continent that is home to two-thirds of the world’s population, finished among the top 10 in the medal table at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Asian giant China, after a close battle with Great Britain for second spot, finished third in the table with 26 golds while Japan (12 golds) and South Korea (nine golds) finished sixth and eighth, respectively. The three nations took a little more than a 25 per cent of the medals won by the top 10 countries.
The bulk of China’s golds in Rio came from diving (seven), weightlifting (five) and table tennis (four) while Japan was boosted by its good showing in wrestling (four) and taekwondo (three). South Korea got a strong push from its archers who went home with four yellows. Naturally, these are the disciplines that these countries virtually dominate at the Asian Games, too, though Iran upset Japan to top the wrestling medal tally at the last Asiad in Incheon, South Korea, in 2014.
When one thinks of China at the Olympics, images of compact little divers, like Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia, and table tennis players frequently pop up in one’s mind.
China is a powerhouse in diving. It swept all the 10 golds in the sport at the last Asiad and, with Rio Olympic champions Shi Tingmao and Chen Aisen in the team forJakarta, the country looks set for an encore.
Revelling in water
Interestingly, more than a third of China’s 151 golds at the 2014 Asiad came from water sports, including swimming, rowing, sailing and canoeing, apart from diving. China — powered by jumps and throws — also topped the pack in athletics, shooting, weightlifting and table tennis in Incheon.
When it comes to China, the spotlight could be on its controversial and colourful swimmer Sun Yang, who has won Olympic golds in a stunning range of freestyle events like the 200m, 400m and 1,500m, apart from amassing an impressive bunch of golds at the Worlds.
Yang, China’s lone swimming gold medallist at the 2016 Olympics and one of its top-earning sportspersons with a reported income of $69 million two years ago, has a party boy image and is frequently in the news for the wrong reasons. A few years ago, he missed training for days, and when photos of Yang with an air hostess made headlines, his coach almost lost his job. He was once jailed for driving without a licence, slamming a friend’s Porsche into a bus and in 2014 he was handed a three-month ban after testing positive for a stimulant. The Chinese Swimming Association kept the failed dope test under wraps for many months, which raised many eyebrows.
Asians pick up pace
Coming back to athletics, Asia appears to be fast catching up with the world’s best in sprinting, if not with their own, at least with borrowed sprinters from African countries making the most of the loopholes in the IAAF’s transfer rules.
The men’s and women’s 400m is ample proof of this, and this is the big hurdle that will stop India’s Muhammed Anas and Hima Das from becoming Asian Games champions.
Stricter transfer rules
IAAF president Sebastian Coe had said that the transfer rules were open to abuse and had banned athletes from representing another country in February last year. That ban was recently lifted, but the world body has now brought in stricter transfer of allegiance rules, which include a three-year waiting period before competing for another country, that an athlete can transfer only once and that no transfers can be done before an athlete turns 20.
Two Qatari quartermilers, Sudan-born Abdalelah Haroun — a former world junior champion and a bronze medallist at last year’s London Worlds — and Mauritania-born Abderrahman Samba are classic cases of borrowed stars. Both have gone below 45s this year, which should make life tough for Anas (personal best 45.24s), the fastest native Asian quartermiler this year.
Salwa, the hurdle for Hima
Meanwhile, Bahrain’s 20-year-old Salwa Eid Naser’s presence will bring some world-class quality to the women’s quartermile, an event that will also see the new under-20 world champion Hima Das making her Asiad debut.
Nigeria-born Salwa, the London world silver medallist and a consistent winner in the Diamond League this season, stunningly brought down the Asian record to 49.08s in Monaco in July and should be cruising to gold. That top-quality race could also help Assam sprinter Hima go under 51s and break the national record (51.05) in a silver-medal finish.
Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra will be India’s best hope for a gold. Despite the presence of Taipei’s Asian record holder Chao-Tsun Cheng, whose personal best of 91.36m while winning the World University Games gold at home last year is ahead of Chopra’s best (87.43m) by nearly four metres, the Indian has been regularly throwing over 85m and his consistency makes him the favourite.
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