China the best team, but Kitajima takes individual honours

A. VINOD

FIVE years after returning home completely disgraced from the World swimming championship in Perth where four of its world-beaters were caught red-handed for doping, the Chinese are slowly trying to recapture their lost aura and prove their detractors wrong.

Kosuke Kitajima, after setting the world record in the 200m breaststroke.-AFP

In fact, what Busan witnessed was the first step by the Asian behemoth in its intended leap to all-time glory. Free of all allegations or even whispers of any foul-play, China's brilliant performances went a long way in lifting the standard of competition.

The Chinese delegation was quite thrilled at the end and its head coach, Zhao Ge, for once found it fit to talk to the media. "It is all the result of the hard work that we have put in through the last four years. We would now like to repeat the same at Athens in 2004. Before that, we will have another chance at Barcelona during next year's world championships. Our aim is to become the No. 1 swimming nation in the world by 2007 and do well in the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing."

Of course, the Chinese might have embarrassed the Japanese by taking away the top honours in swimming at the 14th Asian Games. But then, it was not a Chinese who emerged as the star of the show. It was a Japanese, Kosuke Kitajima, who for sometime now has been battling it out with injury and his own indifferent form to break into the big league.

V. SUDERSHAN

AFP

The 15-year-old Wu Peng landed three gold medals - 400m individual medley, 200m butterfly and 200m backstroke. Kim Min Suk and Nachaev Ravil made it a deadheat in the 50m freestyle event.

The 22-year-old had arrived at the Sajik pool with the intentions of helping Japan retain the title that it had won at Bangkok, four years ago. And though, that was eventually thwarted by the Chinese, the mission to Busan was a highly successful one for Kitajima as he virtually set the pool ablaze with a sequence of stunning performances in the breaststroke events.

Yu Cheng, the 1500m freestyle winner.-AFP

On the opening day, the Tokyo-based swimmer had won the 100m gold just outside his own Asian record of 1:00.34, despite being left alone at the top of the field right from the start. At the Pan-Pacific championship in Yokohama, Kitajima had won the same event with his first Asian record, but had to retire from the 200m due to a wrist injury.

Questions indeed were again asked on his fitness as the Japanese swimmer prepared to meet the rest of Asia in the 200m, two days later. He chose to answer these doubts in the pool, coming up with the lone world record of the meet and leaving a packed audience virtually stunned. As in the 100m, he faced little opposition and held almost a full second lead over his immediate rival at the end of the first 50m itself.

He was under the world-record time through the other three laps as well and when Kitajima eventually touched the wall at 2:09.97, the oldest world swimming record (2:10.64 by American Mike Barrowman in 1992 at Barcelona) was consigned to the pages of history. Compatriot Daisuke Kimura who made it 1-2 for Japan came in almost three seconds later.

Liu Yu upset the favourite Yoshihiro Okumara (right, in pix) in the 200m freestyle. Yosuke Ichikawa (left) took the bronze.-V. SUDERSHAN

The pleasant-mannered Kitajima was himself surprised with the outcome and he became the second Asian swimmer after Nobutaka Taguchi (also of Japan) to hold a world record. Taguchi's 100m breaststroke record had come in 1972. ''I honestly didn't know that I was going that fast. It was only when I hit the wall and looked up that I realised it was a world record," said the Japanese swimmer, who now has the aim to perform well and gain the gold in Barcelona next year and at Athens in 2004.

The Chinese too will be focussing on Athens, encouraged by the emergence of Wu Peng, who at least to his countrymen, is Asia's answer to the Australian sensation, Ian Thorpe. While the Chinese swimming machine had been successful in churning out world class women swimmers regularly, it has never had the same sort of success in the men's section. And as such, hardly anyone had even cast a second look at this 15-year-old before Peng came up from nowhere to upset a seasoned opposition in the 400m individual medley, 200m butterfly and 200m backstroke for his three golds in the championship.

Shunichi Fujita on his way to the 400m freestyle gold.-AP

Most notable among this string of fine performances by Peng came in the 200m backstroke. He trailed favourite Takashi Nakano for most part of the race before launching himself to the gold in the final lap. Peng was timed at 2:00.40, while Nakano finished behind in 2:00.76. The new sensation was to repeat the act as he denied Asian record holder and reigning champion Takashi Yamamoto a second successive gold in the 200 butterfly.

Again, Peng found it was comfortable to lie behind his rival through the initial stages before kicking hard to the finish. The Chinese was timed at 1:56.93 whereas Yamamoto could finish only in 1:57.18. A small consolation for the Japanese came two days later when he retained the 100m gold, won in Bangkok four years ago, but only after figuring in another stiff battle, this time with his own compatriot Kohei Kawamoto.

Peng's third gold came in the 400m individual medley, with a new Asian record to boot. And here the one to suffer was another Japanese swimmer, Takahiro Mori, who had won the 200m title on the opening day by smashing his own Asian record over the distance. But this time around, Peng was always in the front as he finished in 4:15.38 while pushing Mori (4:16.63) and Shinya Taniguichi (4:17.03) to the second and third spots.

Xu Yanmei bagged five gold medals - two in the individual events and three in the relays.-V. SUDERSHAN

The freestyle events had many surprises in store. More than the dead-heat in the 50m freestyle wherein Kim Min-Suk won a joint gold with Ravil Nachaev of Uzbekistan, what created ripples was the surprise win that Liu Yu scored over the popular Yoshihiro Okumura, the Asian record holder in the 200m freestyle. Yu also broke Okumura's Games record as he returned in 1:49.29, just seven-hundredths of a second ahead of his seasoned Japanese rival.

However, two days later, Liu had to be content with a silver in the 100m behind compatriot Chen Zuo who came up with a strong second lap enroute to the gold in 50.76s. The 1500m gold was also won by China, through Yu Cheng in a new Asian record time, leaving Japan the satisfaction of winning only the 400m freestyle. This gold was taken by Shunichi Fujita in a Games record time of 3:50.41.

China's Luo Xuejuan (right) is congratulated by team-mate Qi Hui after the 100m breaststroke. Though Qi Hui had to be content with the silver here, she picked up three golds - in the two individual medleys and the 200m breaststroke.-REUTERS

The tough competition between the Chinese and the Japanese spilled over to the relays as well. Here at last, it was Japan which seemed to enjoy the advantage taking the 400m medley and 800m freestyle relay golds before finishing second to China in the 400m freestyle relay.

In the absence of Tomoko Hagiwara, the mainstay of the Japanese, who was supposed to take part in seven events before an injury laid low her aspirations, it was the Chinese all the way in the women's section. And again it was two teenagers who hogged the show coming up with some tremendous efforts. Qi Hui, the 200m breaststroke world record holder, but only 17, swam away with three individual golds, taking the two individual medley titles besides the one in her pet event.

But it was her team-mate Xu Yanwei who won the most golds in the Games as such, taking five - two in the individual events and three in the relays (in which China made a clean sweep) and a silver. Hardly 18, Xu, like Peng and Qi Hui, looked all set to bask in Olympic glory in 2004 as she came up with strong finishes in both the 50m and 100m freestyle events. In the shorter race, Xu was timed at 25.42 as she finished well ahead of South Korea Sun's So-Eun, while in the 100m, her victory in 54.92s came at the expense of her compatriot, Yang Yu. However, Yang Yu was to stop Xu from taking her haul to six as she returned in a Games record time of 1:58.43 in the 200m freestyle, after leading the pack all through. The Chinese had another winner in the 800m as Chen Hua (8:25.36) pushed 400m winner Sachiko Yamada of Japan to the second spot by a clear 3.41s.

Yang Yu, who won the 200m freestyle from start to finish.-AP

In the backstroke events Zhan Shu of China and Reiko Nakamura emerged victorious in the 100m and 200m respectively, but with timings that were hardly impressive. In fact, that was just a reflection of the poor returns in the women's section as a whole as only one Asian and a single Games record were broken through the six days of competition. The continental record came from the experienced Luo Xuejuan, a former world record holder in the 50m breaststroke, who won the 100m gold in 1:06.84 to break her own record of 1:06.96.

But then, Luo was nowhere in the picture as Qi Hui took the 200m gold with a new Games record to boot. Hui was timed at 2:24.01 as she erased Yuan Yuan's previous best of 2:28.34. In the 200m individual medley, Hui was again untroubled as she won two strokes ahead of Zhou Ya Fei, the 100m fly gold-medallist. The same was the case with the Chinese teenager as she took her third gold, the 400m medley in 4:40.37 - a full three seconds ahead of second-placed Maiko Fujino of Japan.

China also made a clean sweep of all the diving titles, while Miya Tachibana took the solo technical and free individual titles in synchronised swimming before combining with Miho Takeda to win both the duet titles.

Yet, if any of the images of the meet would remain etched in memory for long, it would be that of Kosuke Kitajima who produced that extraordinary effort to put Asia right on the world swimming map, dominated so forcefully by the Americans and Australians through the years. A great effort, undoubtedly.