China on top despite a few setbacks

December is not the month for athletics. Yet the athletes had to make light of the end-season fatigue and put their body and soul into a final thrust that could put them amongst the 45 gold medals at stake in the Asian Games.

Despite the new-found, `imported' talent from the African countries, the Gulf nations including host Qatar could not make much of a dent in China's overall dominance. There was a hint of erosion of its huge base with the total number of medals falling from the Busan tally of 41 to 30, but the gold medal count stood at 14.

Japan, with Shingo Suetsugu unstoppable in the 200m not to mention long jumper Kumiko Ikeda and pole vaulter Daichi Sawano in form, regained some lost ground by winning five gold medals. But Bahrain, with its `imported' athletes, had six. The Japanese, and to some extent the Chinese, looked like they did not relish the idea of competing at the fag end of the year and did not enter the full complement of athletes.

China entered a mix of the young and the experienced and even though not all the young performed up to expectations, a few of them including world junior champion Xue Fei, the women's 5000m winner, left a lasting impression, confirming the belief that a reservoir of talent was ready to take over by the time the Beijing Olympics came around.

These Asian Games were expected to produce top-class athletics competition, with two world record holders, one Olympic champion, a double world champion and a horde of Kenya-born middle distance and long distance runners in the fray. Eventually only China's world record holder in the 110m hurdles, Liu Xiang, among the big guns, competed. The 3000m steeplechase world record holder and world champion, Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar and Japan's Olympic hammer champion Koji Murofushi withdrew because of injuries.

If you started getting the feeling that the athletics championships in these Games were looking more like an All-Africa Games, especially while watching middle and long distance events, you would have been justified. With almost all their key runners having African origin, mainly from Kenya and Morocco, the host and Bahrain battled for supremacy on the track and shared the spoils.

Pedigree showed when Youssef Saad Kamel kicked from 100 metres out to effortlessly win the 800m gold. In his heyday Kamel's father Billy Konchellah, two-time world champion from Kenya, used to kick from 90 metres or even 80 metres after coming well behind the bunch into the straight.

Kamel's was one of the gold medals for Bahrain while Hasan Mahboob, formerly Richard Yatich, won the 10,000m in a Games record of 27:58.88, and Tareq Mubarak Taher, formerly Dennis Kipkirui Keter, cashed in on Shaheen's absence to take the steeplechase gold.

The shock defeat of double world champion Rashid Ramzi in the 1500m by Dahame Najam Bashir of Qatar was a setback for Bahrain. Ramzi, who allowed himself to be boxed in early, eventually came third behind team-mate Bilal Mansour Ali.

"I faced real champions today," said Ramzi, who had won the 800 metres and 1500 metres at the Helsinki World championships last year.

Liu Xiang did not show any lack of motivation while asserting his world record-holder status in the 110 hurdles, but another Chinese, world junior champion Huang Haiqiang failed to clear 2.10 and finished last in high jump.

In a Games marked by limited entries in many an event, the field events produced better marks than on the track with Chinese Li Yanxi winning the triple jump at 17.06 and Sultan Abdulmajid Al-Habshi of Saudi Arabia claiming the shot put gold with a Games and national record of 20.42 metres, pushing Asian champion and record holder Khalid Habash Al-Suwaidi of Qatar (20.04) to the silver.

The emergence of sprinter Rakia Al-Gassra of Bahrain, the first Arab woman to win on track — Ghada Shouaa of Syria was the heptathlon champion in 1994 — the eclipse of Sri Lankan Susanthika Jayasinghe, recovering from chikungunya, in both the sprints, and the expected middle distance double by Bahrain's Maryam Yusuf Jamal highlighted the women's events.

Of course the Chinese showed their class in field events, with a near sweep in the throws. The lone Asian record of the championships came in women's hammer throw, with Zhang Wenxiu reaching 74.15 to eclipse her own 73.24 set last year at home. She became the 11th best performer of the world this season while the highest placing in the season's chart was the sixth attained by Kazakh decathlete Dmitriy Karpov (Games record: 8384 points). Liu Xiang (110m hurdles, Games record: 13.15s) and Chinese woman discus thrower Song Aimin (63.52m) were at 13th.

One woman who came out of nowhere to nail a gold was Thai Buaban Phamang. Her javelin triumph came at a Games and National record of 61.31m. Eyebrows were raised that the 34-year-old Thai could jump from a best of 56.68 this season (55.06 in 2005) to reach this level that put her at 19th in the world for the season.

A Special Correspondent