Let the Games begin

China is streets ahead of the rest in the Asian sporting arena and should comfortably maintain its hegemony at the Incheon Games. By Stan Rayan.

For nearly four minutes on September 23, the pool at the Munhak Park Tae-hwan Aquatic Centre in Incheon will be unbearably hot.

That’s the day Korean Park Tae-hwan, the world’s top-ranked 400m freestyle swimmer, takes on China’s World and Olympic champion Sun Yang in the 17th Asian Games.

The 400m free fight between Park, popularly known as the ‘Marine Boy’, and the ‘Aircraft Carrier’ Sun should be one of the highlights of the Games which begin in the Korean city on September 19.

Park, who made history by winning South Korea’s first-ever Olympic swimming gold with the 400 free title in Beijing in 2008, will not be short of inspiration. For, he will be competing in an aquatics complex named after him.

He will also be looking to pull out three individual gold medals from the pool, like he had done at the last two Asian Games, in Guangzhou 2010 and Doha 2006, to make it a memorable hat-trick of sorts.

Park plans to do seven events in Incheon, but even if he strikes gold in all of them, the host Korea will not come anywhere close to China in the medals table.

China, which finished second to the USA at the 2012 London Olympics, is such an awesome power in Asian sport that other countries like Korea, Japan, Iran and the rest do not think of finishing on top of the gold table even in their wildest dreams. For, China has topped the medals table in every Asian Games after 1982 and keeps getting better and better.

In fact, even if the six countries below China in the medals table at the last Games — and that includes South Korea, Japan and India — had joined together, they would still not have displaced China from the top of the chart.

The bulk of China’s 199 gold medals at home in 2010 came from aquatics and shooting which together added 56 yellows to its kitty. Gymnastics and athletics brought in 15 and 13 and there was virtually a Chinese sweep in badminton and table tennis.

China will also have the biggest team at the Games, with 899 athletes (470 men and 429 women), almost 70 more than host South Korea.

With 4.5 billion people, Asia is home to nearly two thirds of the world’s population and the Asian Games is second only to the Olympics in size and grandeur. The Incheon Asian Games, spread over 16 days, has attracted nearly 9,800 athletes from 45 countries who will be fighting for medals in 439 events in 36 disciplines, including 26 which will figure in the next Olympics in Rio in 2016. This will be South Korea’s third Asian Games, after Seoul 1986 and Busan 2002.

The Games will feature a stunning line-up of stars including World champions in badminton and table tennis, China’s Chen Long and Zhang Jike, Olympic badminton champion Li Xuerui and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim who has been threatening the high jump world record in the last few meets this season. Of course, there will be many more Olympic and World champions in gymnastics, diving, shooting, weightlifting and wrestling and we’ll hear more of them as the Games progress.

The Asian Games, which also includes a few former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, Krygystan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, who were allowed to take part by the Olympic Council of Asia in 1994, will also have a bit of an African flavour with many distance runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, competing for Gulf countries like Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. That makes the field stronger in many events, especially in athletics.

Three cute and cheerful seal siblings, named Barame, Chumuro and Vichuon, meaning wind, dance and light, in accordance with the theme of the main venue of the Asian Games, will be the Games mascots.

The organisers hope the harbour seal, a rare species in South Korea which travels between the two sides of the divided Korean Peninsula freely, will bring peace between South and North Korea.

The Opening and Closing Ceremonies at recent Games have been massive affairs with each one trying to outdo the other and becoming a competition of sorts. But Jang Jin, the Artistic Director of the Opening Ceremony, made it clear that Incheon would not be trying to compete with earlier Games in this aspect.

“Unlike the previous Asian Games and Olympics that focused on flaunting their national power, such as the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2014 Asian Games won’t simply show off a scale, but try to deliver a clear message that 4.5 billion Asians dream, ‘Asia as One,’” he said.

The Opening and Closing will try to impress with story-telling performances and unique choreography in harmony with Korean-styled ideas and creativity. The highlight will be the presence of ‘Gangnam Style’ star DJ PSY and will also include a few leading K-pop artists with Chinese pianist Lang Lang likely to join in.

Well, get ready for the party.