China still too good for the rest of Asia

K.P. MOHAN

CHINA targeted 15 gold medals from athletics in the Asian Games. It got 14. The target was the same number of golds it had won four years ago in Bangkok.

Jamal Al-Saffar of Saudi Arabia (No. 260) shocked favourite Nobuhara Asahara of Japan (No. 190) in the men's 100m.-V. SUDERSHAN

''We were a little surprised by the medal hauls by India and Saudi Arabia. We would have expected the main challenge to come from Japan," said coach Feng Shuyong, who was not part of the official Chinese team this time.

India and Saudi Arabia won seven gold medals each. (Subsequently, Sunita Rani's doping case was confirmed and her gold medal in the 1500m was taken away and India slipped to the third position behind Saudi Arabia).

Japan's Suetsugo Shingo won the men's 200m with a measure of comfort.-V. SUDERSHAN

Japan proved the biggest disappointment. From 12 gold medals in 1998 to just two this time, Japan touched a dismal tally. It had prepared well, but somehow its distance runners could not perform up to potential and current standings and its men's relay teams suffered shock defeats to Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

Nothing was more shocking than the defeat of Nobuhara Asahara in the 100 metres, by Saudi Arabian Jamal Al-Saffar. Asahara was in such splendid form through the season, making a mark for himself in the Grand Prix circuit, that his defeat in the Asian Games was almost unthinkable.

Saudi Arabia's Hadi Soua'an Al-Somaily set a new Asian Games record in the 400m hurdles for men.-V. SUDERSHAN

As it turned out, Asahara had a poor start and despite a great effort towards the final 25 metres, he could not match Al-Saffar.

There were no such problems for another Japanese, Shingo Suetsugu in the 200 metres. The best man this season for the longer dash, Suetsugu won with a measure of comfort, in a world-class timing of 20.38. His own best for the season had been the 20.37 which he clocked in Sapporo in July.

The other Japanese gold came from hammer-thrower Koji Murofushi. There could not have been any doubt about the outcome. Murofushi is such a giant in the event even at the world-level that in Asia he just cannot be beaten. More so ever since Andrey Abduvaliyev made his exit from competition. Incidentally, the former world champion now heads the Uzbek federation.

Asked about the five gold medals his father, Shigenobu Murofushi had won in the Asian Games and his own chances of emulating his father, Koji replied that it would be difficult. Yet, he was not going to rule that out. He wanted to take it by each year, perform at his best, throw the longest.

Qatari Dahesh Fawzi Al-Shammari (No. 283) clocked 44.93 to win the men's 400m event.-V. SUDERSHAN

Murofushi was critical of the morning start. He thought everyone suffered because of that. The Asian Athletic Association (AAA) could merely be a spectator as the organising committee dictated the schedules. There were even 10 a.m finals on the track.

''We informed the team managers that we were dissociating ourselves from the schedules," said the AAA Secretary-Treasurer, Maurice Nicholas. He could not explain why the organising committee had opted for such schedules, but pointed out that in 1988, when Seoul hosted the Olympics, there were 12 noon sprint starts, to suit the American TV audiences.

Saudi Arabia's Moukhled A-Otaibi scored a distance double winning the 5000 and 10,000m golds.-V. SUDERSHAN

Here, to think that the Americans would be interested in a big way for an Asian Games track and field programme would have been rather foolish. Especially when it had not generated much interest in the region itself and the local audiences were largely made up of children. Most of the time the beautiful stadium wore a deserted look.

The fields were by and large thin in most of the events. Heats were cancelled, rounds removed and straight finals were ordered in many events. Overall, a majority of the events produced below-par fare.

Among the exceptions were the women's 5000m and 10,000m, both won by Chinese Sun Yingjie. The girl from Liaoning, the famous Chinese province which had churned out a horde of world-class runners in the past, clocked a fabulous 30:28.26 for the 10,000 metres to be eighth on the all-time lists and four days later, timed a 14:40.41 for the 5000 metres to be 14th on the all-time lists.

In both the 5000 and 10,000m events for women, China's Sun Yingjie won from pillar to post.-V. SUDERSHAN

The Chinese woman, a marathon runner who finished fourth in Boston this year, and who had beaten her more famous compatriot Dong Yanmei in the National championship back home in June, over both the long distance events, won from pillar to post. She seemed to be bothered about her lap timings rather than keeping a watch on her rivals.

On the men's side, Saudi Arabia's Moukhled Al-Otaibi scored a distance double, beating the more famous Qatari, Ahmed Ibrahim Warsama in the 10,000 metres and then outclassing the Japanese and the Qataris in the 5000 metres.

A former Asian junior champion, Al-Otaibi's was a superlative effort from someone who was just fourth in the 5000 metres at the Colombo Asian championships. "I was not fully fit there," said the 22-year-old Saudi who had started off as a gymnast and shone as a cross-country runner when he entered athletics at the age of 17.

Qatar fared poorly. It ended up with just one gold compared to the eight it had won at the Colombo Asian championships. It was planning to enlarge on that tally, but only steeplechaser Khamis Abdullah obliged.

Sri Lankan Susanthika Jayasinghe, expectedly took the women's 100m gold.-V. SUDERSHAN

Perhaps the Qataris, especially its runners, paid the price for competing in too many events in Europe in the run-up to the Asian Games. But then there could be no fixed theories on such things since someone like Dahesh Fawzi Al-Shammari clocked 44.93 seconds while winning the 400 metres. And the Kuwaiti had competed through the Grand Prix grind, the GP finals and the World Cup before coming over to Busan.

Al-Shammari equalled his effort at Doha when he won the Grand Prix title in May. He had slumped a little towards the close of the GP circuit but showed that he could still clock a sub-45 right at the end of the season disproving the theory that performance levels were bound to dip for the Kuwaiti and the rest. Against such class, Saudi Arabian Hamdan O. Al-Bishi could only get the silver though he clocked his season best of 44.95. It was on the last stride that the Kuwaiti beat him. Sri Lankan Rohan Pradeep Kumara, who looks ready to take over the reins from Sugath Tillakeratne, injured here, was third in his season best 45.67.

This was one of the best races in the Games. Another that could have produced a titanic battle, the 400 metres hurdles, failed to come up to expectations. Saudi Arabian Hadi Soua'an Al-Somaily won with enough to spare from Asian champion Sultan Mubarak Al-Nubi, while Japanese Dai Tamesue, the World bronze medallist, coming back from an injury, was a poor third.

Tatiana Efimenko of Kyrgystan on way to the gold in the women's high jump.-V. SUDERSHAN

Al-Somaily, who had a reputation as an Olympic silver medallist to protect, clocked an Asian Games record of 48.42 seconds. Al-Nubi came in 48.98, while Tamesue could manage only a 49.29.

Bahrain had two gold medals, its first since Ahmed Hamada won the 400m hurdles title in 1986 in Seoul. Rashid Mohammed (800m) and Rashid Ramzi (1500m), both of Moroccan origin, were the winners for Bahrain.

Of the three gold medals that Korea won from athletics, high jumper Lee Jin-Taek accounted for one in the men's section at the stadium. The other men's gold, on the closing day, came through Lee Bong-Ju, the marathoner who won the silver at the 1996 Olympics. Lee Bong-Ju was winning back to back marathon titles.

Damayanthi Darsha of Sri Lanka was unstoppable in the women's 400m.-V. SUDERSHAN

It was a fitting finale for the Koreans as Lee Bong-Ju coasted to an effortless victory, leaving Japanese Koji Shimizu and Ryuji Takei well behind. "I still have plenty left to think about the next Olympics and World championships," said the 32-year-old Lee Bong-Ju.

It was also a proud moment for North Korean Ham Bong Sil as she won her country's only athletics medal, the marathon gold. In a field of just 11 runners, she was the favourite and she lived up to her billing.

There was only one continental record, that too at the junior level. Chinese decathlete Qi Haifeng tallied 8041 points to better his own Asian junior mark of 8030.

Gu Yuan of China, who was the favourite in the women's hammer event, lived up to the expectations.

In the women's section the spotlight was on the Indians and the Sri Lankans, with Susanthika Jayasinghe effortlessly winning the 100 metres and then pulling out of the 200 metres due to an injury. Darsha's 400m victory brought Sri Lanka its second and only other gold. With Jayasinghe injured, Sri Lanka did not field a team in the shorter relay final.

The Chinese women's domination in the throws was eroded with India and Korea taking one gold each. Neelam J, Singh's discus gold apart, China also had a shock when veteran Lee Young-Sun claimed the javelin gold, ahead of Liang Lili.

''We were expecting the gold in women's javelin. This was a gold which we should have won," said coach Feng Shuyong.

It may perhaps be a long time before the Chinese come back to their total domination on the track in the women's section. But overall, they are still too good for the rest of Asia. That they could prove it in a Korean city, despite their fears, showed their abundance of talent and depth.