A total of 419 golds up for grabs

A. VINOD

PATRIOTIC fervour is certain to be in full bloom in every nook and corner of the continent, once the action picks up momentum at the 14th Asian Games in Busan. There will be, for sure, prayers on many a lip even as supporters eagerly look forward to a dazzling display from their respective national squads and hope for the very best once the medals are decided in the southeastern port city of South Korea.

India's Dhanraj Pillay, hugged by goalkeeper Subbiah, cannot hide his emotions after India had won the men's hockey gold in Bangkok. After a decent show in the Champions Trophy, India will start its Asian Games campaign as the defending champion.-VINO JOHN

The agenda in Busan includes competitions in 38 disciplines and a total of 419 golds would be up for grabs, with athletics itself offering 45 and aquatics and shooting 43 and 42 respectively. With so much at stake, it is only natural that the 12,000-odd athletes would be unwilling even to give away a dime as they attempt to do their country proud all through the September 29-October 14 extravaganza.

In the event, there should be some lively action as the Asian Games get into full swing at venues all across Busan and the neighbouring cities of Ulsan, Changwon, Masan and Yangsan. Yet, among all the 38 disciplines that form part of the schedule of competition, it is very much certain that the interest would be more on specific events such as athletics, aquatics, basketball, football, gymnastics, hockey, tennis, table tennis and volleyball, though the others too might not lack in quality and content, and are quite capable to give rise to passion and excitement in their own way.

Indeed, what often gives sport an added dimension is the unpredictable nature of the final result emerging out of a contest. Remember the recent World Cup football in which France and Argentina were expected to dominate but failed to do so in the light of some really stunning surprises.

The key to Japan's fortunes in men's swimming lies in the performance of 19-year-old Kosuke Kitajima, who heads the world rankings in the 200m breaststroke and is the Asian record holder in the 100m.-REUTERS

Well, these things could happen in Busan too as form book and predictions are very much likely to take a beating on any given day. Especially at the Sajik swimming pool, where the Japanese and the Chinese look all set to renew their rivalry in their attempt to steal a march over each other. The pool could be one vulnerable area for the Chinese but it is unlikely to stop them from heading the honours table precisely in the same manner in which they have headed the final medals tally through the last five editions of these Games.

However, what has raised hopes in the Japanese camp to check the Chinese in swimming is the string of fine performances returned by their swimmers in last year's World championship in Fukuoka and more recently in last month's Pan-Pacific championship in Yokohama. The key to Japan's fortunes in the men's section at Busan should be the performance of 19-year-old Kosuke Kitajima, who, incidentally, heads the world rankings in the 200m breaststroke and is the Asian record holder in the 100m.

The Japanese will be without the services of Tomoko Hagiwara, who had to withdraw from the squad due to injury. Her presence in Busan would have given the Chinese, led by Luo Xuejuan and Qi Hui, quite a few anxious moments though the Japanese still have some potential giant-killers in Yuko Nakanishi (butterfly) Sachiko Yamada and Shunichi Fujita (long distance freestyle) and Aya Terakaw (backstroke).

Tamarine Tanasugarn and Paradorn Srichaphan (below) both from Thailand, are the favourite in the tennis events.-AP

Very much like the clash between titans Australia and the United States in the world arena, the battle for pool supremacy between Japan and China could take the Busan Asian Games to newer heights. But in other events such as diving, it could be a clean Chinese sweep what with the favourites boasting of a formidable line-up comprising Tian Liang, Hu Ji, Wang Tianling, Wang Feng, Peng Bo, Xuo Hao, Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia.

In basketball, the competition for the top honours could well be among China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan even though there would be 10 other teams in the fray in the men's section. China, however, would be missing the services of the 'Walking Great Wall', Wang Zhizhi, the first Chinese player to figure in the highly-competitive NBA, the world's premier league. The round-robin league in the women's section, with just six teams in the fray, should also see the tussle for the gold among Japan, China and South Korea, leaving Taiwan, Uzbekistan and Malaysia far behind.

It would be deemed a disaster if South Korea fails in its attempt to land the football gold. Expectations should be very high among the South Koreans to grab the gold in this popular discipline, particularly after the fourth-place showing by the National squad in the World Cup this year. Of course, with the Asian Games limited to just three senior players and the rest to those under-23 years of age, the South Korean hopes would mainly rest on Park Ji-Sung and Lee Chung Soo and how they jell with the other members of their side.

The popularity of football could also be gauged from the fact that most of the tickets for the final of the event have already been taken, though only four per cent of the total tickets for the Games, which went on sale through the on-line and a bank on July 1, were sold by the first week of September. Opposition for the expected South Korean domination in football could come from many quarters what with Japan, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran also in the race for the top honours. In the women's section, the fight for the top placing could well be among the two Koreas, China and Japan.

VINO JOHN

Gymnastics has all along remained the forte of the Chinese and it would be a surprise if they fail to take the majority of 16 golds at stake. The Chinese should be in Busan with a team packed with known performers led by the world allaround champion Feng Jing, though Sydney Olympics gold-medallist Xing Aowei has been ruled out due to injury. Xing's place in the Chinese squad is likely to be taken by Liang Fuliang, another tremendous prospect, who took the gymnastics scene by storm with a brilliant performance in last year's World Universiad. The other top flight stars expected to be seen in action are Lio Xiaopeng, Yang Wei, Huang Xu and Teng Haibin. In the women's section, the Chinese aspirations would be spearheaded by Sun Xiaojio and Zhang Nan as they take on the challenge from their counterparts from the former Russian States.

South Korea more or less will hold the cards in hockey given the home advantage that the team is sure to enjoy during the competition. That the South Koreans were able to overcome India in the recent Champions Trophy in Cologne, West Germany, despite an otherwise poor run should give the home team an added psychological edge as it takes on the reigning champion. Pakistan, as usual, would be a dangerous opponent for both the Indians and South Koreans, while the fourth spot for the semifinals is likely to be taken by either Japan, Malaysia or China.

All the three top contenders in the sport have amongst their ranks quite a few great players but the tone and tenor of the competition could be decided at the league phase itself. That the event holds special significance to India could be nothing more than an understatement. The Indian team, coached by Rajinder Singh, seems to have overcome the debacle at the last World Cup in Kuala Lumpur and should be looking forward to a sizzling display from skipper Dilip Tirkey, the versatile Dhanraj Pillay, Daljit Singh Dhillon, Deepak Thakur, Prabhjot Singh, Gagan Ajit Singh and Jugraj Singh in its attempt to retain the gold won in Bangkok, four years ago.

The South Korean challenge would be led by the seasoned Kang Keon Wook, Song Tae Seung, Yoo Moon Ki, Kim Yoon and Jeon Jong Ha, while Pakistan, which finished third at the Champions Trophy, is certain to have Sohail Abbas, Mohammed Nadeem, Kamran Ashraff and Mohammed Sarwar amongst its ranks. India, at the league phase, will be pitted against Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea in Group 'A', while Group 'B' comprises Pakistan, Malaysia, China and Bangladesh.

In women's hockey, it would be absurd to look beyond South Korea. Though the actual composition of the home team is still not known, the glowing record of the South Koreans at the international arena is enough to tag them as the favourites. The contenders for the silver should be either China, Japan or India, the three other countries completing the line-up. Having won the Commonwealth Games gold in Manchester in quite a dramatic fashion, the key question, as the round-robin league progresses, which will be haunting the Indian camp and the supporters would be the capability of Suraj Lata Devi and company to deliver the goods in what is going to be a very difficult campaign.

Expectations should be very high among the South Koreans of grabbing the football gold, particularly after the fourth-place showing by the National squad in the World Cup this year.-AFP

Likewise, the whole of India should naturally be anxious about the results of the tennis competitions in Busan. With the peerless Leander Paes and his estranged former doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi both included in the Indian side along with Rohan Bopanna and Sunil Kumar Sipaeya, it would be a major surprise if Paes & co falls by the wayside and fails to notch up at least the team gold. Should Paes and Bhupathi vibe well as they had done in the past, the former World No. 1 doubles pair should also be able to help the country land a second gold. The men to watch in the singles, besides Paes, would be Paradorn Srichaphan, the Thai pro, who is currently the highest ranked (by the ATP) Asian player and the Chinese entrants Wang Yu and Xu Ran. But if the Thai, who defeated Andre Agassi in the second round of this year's Wimbledon and later became the second Asian after Paes (in 1998) to win a top-tier event while triumphing over Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela in the final of the TD Waterhouse Cup championship in New York last month, lives up to his top billing, there could be little chance either for the Indian or the Chinese to dream of the singles gold.

In women's action, in the absence of Ai Sugiyama, who has pulled out, Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand will start as the favourite. Tanasugarn is ranked within the world's top 30. Also in the reckoning should be China's Zheng Jie while the South Koreans and Uzbeks too look capable of producing some surprise results. The doubles in the same section should go China's way through Li Na and Li Ting, with the duo holding a slight edge over their Japanese rivals. The mixed doubles will remain a wide open affair as most countries would be fielding interim pairs at the Games. Consequently, the combine of Mahesh Bhupathi and Manish Malhotra could well stand a chance of winning the title.

The Chinese should have an easy run in table tennis. With Wang Liqin, Ma Lin, Kong Linghui, Liu Guozheng and Yan Sen already named to represent the country, the interest would be to see who among them clinches the title in the men's section. Among women, Wang Nan, the reigning World champion, should have little difficulty to retain her title as she returns to action after an injury layoff. The others who make up the formidable squad are Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng, Li Nan and Guo Miao. Of interest here, would be the performance of the North Korean combine of Kim Hyan-Hui and Kim Hyang-Mi in the women's doubles.

With the World championship in Argentina set to clash with the dates of the Busan Games, men's volleyball is likely to miss most of the star performers of China, Japan and South Korea. However, the second string of China, by itself, should be enough to help the country retain the title. The Chinese should also be the favourites to win the women's title in a sport where, at least at the continental-level, the game has become limited to China, Japan and South Korea, though not necessarily in that order.