It's wobbly at the top for China

K. P. MOHAN

Sri Lankan Damayanthi Darsha (No. 773) had no difficulty in bagging the 200m gold.-AP

CHINA was on top of the medals standings yet again, but its overwhelming superiority was dented a little as Japan, fielding its best team in a long time in an Asian athletics championships, put up a good fight at Incheon.

Compared to the 19 gold medals it had won in the last edition at Manila, China had 15 in a total of 32 medals. Japan had six gold in a total of 23. It had won just one gold last time in a collection of 21. Qatar, which also had six gold but a lesser tally of silver and bronze, was third in the standings.

The 16th edition of the Asian Championships was by far the most competitive since Fukuoka in 1998. One could point out the absence of some of the Chinese stars, notably its woman long distance runners, Xing Huina and Sun Yingjie, but to say that the Chinese were more keen in their preparations for the upcoming National Games and thus missed out sure medals would be distorting the truth.

As many as a dozen champions from the National championships in Shijiazhuang in June that served as the qualification for the National Games, were entered. Six of them were in the men's section where China also entered triple jumper Gu Junjie, shot putter Zhang Qi and javelin thrower Li Rongxiang who were not the winners at Shijiazhuang, but were rated the best in their events. Among them, Gu Junjie and Li Rongxiang won gold while Zhang Qi took the bronze.

Likewise, six women's national champions were also entered, but China also made sure that its best in 400m hurdles, Huang Xiaoxiao, Asian record holder in pole vault, Gao Shuying, and experienced discus thrower Song Aimin, were also there and they duly won. Gao Shuying posted an Asian record of 4.53m also in the process.

True, China did not enter Xing Huina and Sun Yingjie, but Bai Xue, whose age could be either 18 or 26, depending on whether you accepted the age given in the entry lists or went by past records, made up for their absence by winning the distance double against some keen opposition from the Japanese and the Koreans.

Did China miss a medal by not entering its best? Possibly in men's decathlon where Qi Haifeng would have been one of the top contenders and the men's 4x100m relay. In the women's section, China did not enter its No. 1 and 2 in javelin from the National championships, Xue Juan and Ma Ning, thus allowing Korean Park Ho Hyun an easy run, while it did not enter a heptathlete at all, making it easier for the Indians.

Of the 15 gold medals that China won, 11 came from the women including three of the four throwing events. Olympic champion Liu Xiang expectedly won the men's 110m hurdles, in a championship record time of 13.30, but felt that the track was slightly tricky not affording him the kind of pace he would have wanted. Many of the sprinters felt the same, saying that the bounce was good but they could not gain much speed.

Japan should have taken the short sprint if not both the sprints. For the first time, it had its top two sprinters, Shingo Suetsugu and Nobuharu Asahara in the Asian competition together, but they disappointed. Japan's gold medals came through quarter-miler Yuzo Kanemaru, who surprised Sri Lankans Prasanna Amarasekara and Rohan Pradeep Kumara apart from Saudi Arabian Hamdan Odha Al-Bishi, the favourite, in an ordinary timing of 46.04 seconds, pole vaulter Daichi Sawano and the relay teams in the men's section. In the women's Miho Sugimori won the middle distance double.

Khaled Al-Suwaidi... adds a gold to Qatar's kitty.-AP

Suetsugu had the second worst start in the 100m final after the race was delayed for about 20 minutes because of some technical hitch. Then, there was a false start which made it that much tougher for the sprinters since another false start would have meant disqualification.

Suetsugu, bronze medal winner in the 200m at the Paris World Championships in 2003, made up a lot in the second half of the race but Saudi Arabian Yahya Al Ghes, who had a very good start and an excellent drive off the blocks, held him off. The winning time of 10.39 seconds did little credit to the Saudi or the rest. Suetsugu, for example, has a 10.03, Asahara, who finished fourth in 10.57s, has a best of 10.02.

Saudi Arabian Hamed Al Bishi took the 200 metres and countryman Hadi Soua'an Al-Somaily claimed the 400m hurdles on the last day to haul their country up in the standings and it could well have been one more gold had not the team been disqualified in the 4x400 metres relay. Saudi Arabia also had a gold winner in long jumper Ahmed Fayaz Marzouk (7.98m).

The Saudi disappointment was in Moukhled Al-Outaibi, double gold winner at the Busan Asian Games, ending up with just the silver in the 10,000 metres and pulling out of the 5000m in which he had set an Asian record of 12:58.58 this season.

Qatar proved strong in the middle distance and long distance events. Majed Saeed Sultan, 18, clocked a championship record of 1:44.27 in the 800 metres and took two others past the finish for sub-1:45 marks as well. Team-mate Abdulrahman Suleiman had a 1:44.73 and Iranian Sadjad Moradi had a national record of 1:44.74 for the bronze. Asia had not seen such two-lap racing in continental meets or games in the past.

The best in the continent were, however, not there in the 800m or 1500m! Bahrain did not enter the double gold winner at the Helsinki World Championships, Rashid Ramzi. Also missing was Bahrain's Bilal Mansour Ali, another 1:44 runner who was entered but was absent.

Bahrain, in fact, entered four athletes and then pulled its team out for reasons never explained during the championships. "They just withdrew," said the Asian Athletics Association Secretary, Maurice Nicholas.

Bahrain also has in its midst the Asian record holder in the 800 metres, Youssef Saad Kamel and the best woman middle distance runner in Asia this season, Maryam Yusuf Jamal. By the time the Doha Asian Games comes around, they would be ready for the starter's gun. The middle distance possibilities in Asia are mind-boggling indeed.

From 800 through to 10,000m, Qatar made a clean sweep. Ali Abubaker Kamal, 22, took the 1500m, James Kwalia Chepkurui, formerly a Kenyan, claimed the 5000 metres and Essa Ismail Rasheed, 18, another Qatari of Kenyan origin, the 10,000 metres.

Though world champion and world record holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen was not in the fray, Qatar still managed to win the 3000m steeplechase, through Moussa Omar Obaid. It added another gold when Khaled Al-Suwaidi won the shot put event.

Sri Lanka was without Susanthika Jayasinghe. But Damayanthi Darsha was still around and she won, rather comfortably, the women's 200 metres. She felt that she had silenced those who were of the opinion that she was over the hill. She has quit the 400m completely and from now on will focus entirely on the 200m. That should be good news for the Indians.

Japan's Yuzo Kanemaru... surprise winner in the men's 400m event.-AP

Sri Lanka also had another gold, sort of a surprise, through Manjula Kumara Wijesekara who equalled his own national record of 2.27 metres in high jump. The Island nation, however, was jolted in the men's 4x400m relay that was considered a sure bet. Saudi Arabia and Japan beat them to the first two places and after the former's disqualification Sri Lanka moved in to the silver spot.

The Central Asian republics which among them had seven gold medals last time could manage only two this time, through Uzbek decathlete Pavel Andreyev and Kyrgyzstan woman high jumper Tatyana Effimenko. Among the more familiar faces missing were Kazakh sprinter Gennadiy Chernovol and Uzbek female sprinter Lyubov Perepelova, both in poor form this season.

Bangladesh, Bhutan, Bahrain, Jordan, Myanmar, Nepal, Palestine, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen did not field a team in these championships.

Incheon, with an eye on its bid for the 2014 Asian Games, organised the meet on a lavish scale, with elaborate opening and closing ceremonies.