BEIJING: China’s emerging stars set the last Asian Games alight and now the country’s formidable sports machine will look to unleash a new generation of world-beaters in Incheon.
Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen were barely known teenagers at the 2010 Guangzhou Games, but 10 world and Olympic swimming titles later they will be among the biggest stars in South Korea.
Officials are playing down expectations that China can match their performance of 2010, when they collected 416 medals including 199 golds — both Asian Games records.
But there is little doubt that China, who will bring nearly 900 athletes — roughly one-tenth of the total field — are set to top the medals table for the ninth time in a row.
The 15-day competition in Incheon will be one of the most important proving grounds for China’s emerging athletes as they look towards the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Many of the competitors from last month’s Youth Olympics in Nanjing will represent China, while badminton great Lin Dan, 30, will defend his title for what could be the last time.
With the number of sports reduced from 42 to 36, and the total number of gold medals down to 439 from 477, China are unlikely to improve on their haul of 2010.
“Almost all experts agree that China will see a sharp decline in gold medals,” state broadcaster CCTV said on its website.
By comparison, China’s nearest rivals South Korea and Japan won 76 and 48 gold medals respectively in Guangzhou.
China’s youngsters will hope to follow in the footsteps of Sun and Ye, who were aged just 19 and 14 when they won four golds between them in 2010.
Sun since gained superstar status by winning two gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, along with five world titles, and twice breaking the hallowed 1500m world record along the way.
However, the 23-year-old has also attracted controversy, and he was banned from swimming activities after briefly being jailed last November for driving his Porsche without a licence.
Sun returned to the pool in style in May, winning the 200m freestyle title at China’s national championships, and he will again be favourite for his races in Incheon.
But the tall swimming icon looks unlikely to defend his 1500m title — which he won in an Asian record in 2010 — as he is still returning to full fitness after his lay-off.
“I’m slowly getting back the levels of oxygen capacity and speed that I had at the London Olympics, and in the short distances my level has even surpassed my Olympics standard,” said Sun, according to the Nanjing Morning Post.
“I have also seen other (competitors’) performances and as long as I maintain my systematic training, it won’t be difficult for me to reach that same level.”
Ye, now 18, won the 200m and 400m individual medley in 2010, and went on to stun the world by taking out both titles at the London Olympics two years later.
Ye, who last month enrolled in a top Beijing university, will be looking to get back on the podium after departing last year’s Barcelona world championships without a medal.
China grabbed 24 of the 38 swimming gold medals in 2010, and they also cleaned up in table tennis, diving, badminton, gymnastics and weightlifting.
This time around, rising star Fan Zhendong is the one to watch in ping pong after rising through China’s ultra-competitive ranks to become world number three at the age of just 17.
In track and field, long jumper Li Jinzhe improved his personal best three times this year, and recorded last year’s fourth-longest leap in the world at 8.34m.
Zhang Peimeng ran the 100m in a Chinese record of 10.00sec at last year’s world championships, raising hopes he could become the first native Asian to break the 10-second barrier.
Zhang told the Tencent news portal that he was eager to “grasp” the opportunity of performing his first Asian Games.
Meanwhile, Xia Wenjun is aiming to win China’s eighth consecutive 110m hurdles Asian title, taking up the mantle of injury-wrecked former Olympic champion Liu Xiang.
Xia is attending Asiad after a busy fortnight competing in a Diamond League final in Brussels and the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakech, Morocco.
“The Asian Games is the one competition that he must win,” his coach Sun Haiping, Liu’s ex-mentor, said according to Sina Sports.