SINGAPORE (Reuters) - With a deep talent pool overflowing with Olympic and world champions, the swimming competition at the Asian Games is shaping up as the most intriguing event in Incheon.
With the added lure of a classic rivalry involving a home-town hero and a sneak preview of the next wave of stars poised to shine at the Rio Olympics, all the ingredients are there for a mouthwatering competition.
China, who named a 61-member swim squad, is again expected to dominate the medals after scooping up the lion’s share of the golds on offer at the last Asian Games but face stiff competition from Japan and South Korea.
Park Tae-hwan, whom the Aquatics Center in Incheon is named after, carries the hopes of the host nation.
The 2008 Olympic gold medalist and two-time 400 meters freestyle world champion won three freestyle gold medals at each of the last two Asian Games.
He is chasing an unprecedented third straight treble but faces a formidable challenge from Chinese sensation Sun Yang in what promises to be the highlight of the six-day swimming competition.
Sun won the 400-1,500m double at the 2012 London Olympics but is adding the 200m to his program for Incheon, setting the stage for a titanic battle with the 24-year-old Park, who is a superstar in Korea and has been dubbed “Marine Boy” by media.
“My goal is to post good records at every race,” Park told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
“If I can do that, then I should get the desired color of medals. Then once all the races are done, I will be able to smile.”
Park warmed up for the Asian Games with an impressive victory in the 400m at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia, setting the fastest time in the world this year.
Sun is still getting back to his best after a turbulent year.
The 22-year-old spent a week in a detention center last year after being caught driving without a license but still managed to win three titles at the Chinese National Championships in May, even though his times are below his best.
“Up against Park, we’re can’t say 100 percent, but it’s within our control,” Sun’s coach Zhang Yadong told Chinese media.
“Park’s a relatively strong opponent in the 200m. As far as we’re concerned, we don’t see him as an opponent. Especially in the 400m and 1,500m, we don’t need to watch him.”
Ye Shiwen, who won the women’s medley double at London, is also trying to get back to her best after failing to win any medals at last year’s world championships in Barcelona.
The 18-year-old, who has just begun a law degree in one of China’s top universities, is ranked third in the world this year for the 400m individual medley and is making steady progress.
China’s other two recent Olympic champions, Jiao Liuyang and Liu Zige, also made the team in women’s 200m butterfly, while some of the country’s emerging teenage stars will be there in a possible look ahead to Rio.
Shen Duo, the 16-year-old who cleaned up five gold medals at the recent Youth Olympics in Nanjing, has also made the senior team along with Xu Jiayu, ranked number one in the world in men’s 100m backstroke.
Japan’s men are on the rise after a strong showing at the Pan Pacific Championships, where they collected six gold medals while competing against the powerful United States and Australian teams.
Kosuke Hagino laid down his claim as the world’s best all-round swimmer at present when he scored a stunning win over Michael Phelps to win the 200m individual medley after beating Tyler Clary in the 400m medley.
Yashuhiro Koseki won the men’s breaststroke double while Ryosuke Irie upset Matt Grevers to win the 100m backstroke and Daiya Seto overpowered his rivals to win the 200m butterfly.
Editing by Peter Rutherford