INCHEON, South Korea (AFP) – Powerhouse China will look to Olympic champion Sun Yang to burst rival Park Tae-Hwan’s bubble in the first race of their explosive triple-header Sunday as they bid to dominate the Asian Games swimming once more.
With the trail-blazing Olympic title-holder going up against South Korean pin-up Park, and Japan’s new sensation Kosuke Hagino also in the mix, the men’s 200 and 400 metres freestyle are the hottest tickets in town.
Park, after whom Incheon’s aquatic arena is named, and Sun also clash in the 1,500m as they resume their fierce rivalry.
Emboldened by the heroics of Olympic superstar Kosuke Kitajima, however, a new wave of Japanese men is poised to challenge China’s recent dominance of the pool, with Hagino at the forefront. Sun shot to fame in London two years ago by becoming the first Chinese man to capture Olympic swimming gold, winning the 400m and 1,500m freestyle titles.
Controversy has shadowed him since, however, and he was suspended by Chinese swimming authorities last November after police detained him for driving a sports car without a licence.
But the 1.98m (6ft 6in) Sun, who holds the world record for the 1,500m freestyle, is crucial to his country’s Asian Games hopes, having returned from suspension in May by cruising to the national 200m title.
“Park is a national hero in South Korea,” Sun said of the 2008 Olympic 400 metres champion, dubbed “Marine Boy” by local media. “It is a testament to his achievements that they have named the venue after him.”
Sun has already thrown down the challenge to Park in a tongue-in-cheek television commercial hyping their showdown, betting his rival a slap-up Korean barbecue he will beat him in front of his home crowd.
The Chinese won 24 of the 38 gold medals in the pool at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, Japan finishing a distant second with nine – all won by the men.
Ye Shiwen, who won the women’s medley double in London, spearheads China’s women despite the 18-year-old’s surprise flop at last year’s world championships in Barcelona.
The women’s 200m butterfly could produce a Chinese one-two of Jiao Liuyang and Liu Zige, who won the event at the past two Olympics.
China also have an eye on the future, 17-year-old Shen Duo looking to continue his hot streak after taking five gold medals at the recent Youth Olympics in Nanjing.
Xu Jiayu could face fierce competition in the men’s backstroke events from Japan’s Ryosuke Irie and Daiya Seto, however, after they won the 100m and 200m respectively at the Pan Pacific meet.