INCHEON, South Korea (AFP) – China’s fractious rivalry with Japan threatened to boil over into a politic row at the Asian Games as the regional superpowers fought tooth and nail for supremacy in the pool.
Controversial Olympic champion Sun Yang, the fiery Chinese talisman who appeared in a TV commercial before the Games poking fun at South Korea’s Park Tae-Hwan, had to issue an apology after calling the Japanese national anthem “ugly”.
China’s women finished with an overall gold medal tally of 22 compared to Japan’s 12, but the men’s competition had a different complexion, the Japanese edging it 8-7 to prompt talk of a shift of power in Asian swimming.
Sun, stunned by Japan sensation Kosuke Hagino in the men’s 200m freestyle, insisted otherwise after the dust had settled.
“I don’t believe there’s been a shift to Japan,” he told reporters. “We’re better in the freestyle and they’re better than us in the individual medley. To assess China’s performance you have to look at the whole team, not just the men. We can always improve.”
China’s bling king, who strolls out for races wearing gold headphones, dominated the 400m and 1,500m freestyle, former Olympic champion Park seeming to shrink in his hulking presence.
Park failed to win any of his four individual events but his bronze in Friday’s 4x100m medley relay gave him a 20th Asian Games medal, a record for a South Korean athlete at the quadrennial multisport event.
Hagino finished with seven medals, including four golds, the 20-year-old already being tipped as a strong contender to win medley gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I’m stronger physically and mentally than last year,” said Hagino, 20, who took silver behind American Ryan Lochte in the 200m medley at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona and silver in the 400m free, but missed out on a medal in the 400m medley.
“My target is to win gold at next year’s world championship and in Rio,” added Hagino, who powered to gold in his signature medley events in Incheon and finished behind Sun in the 400m free. “But I also want to win medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”
Sun, 22, will be hot favourite to win the 400m and 1,500m at next year’s world championships, although he has also set his sights on the 200m in Russia. Team-mate Ning Zetao could also be a threat in the sprints, as his lightning anchor leg of 46.91 – which is world record speed – in the 100m medley relay demonstrated.
Chinese darling Ye Shiwen returned with a bang after struggling with the pressure of fame following her astonishing medley double at the London Olympics.
After flopping in Barcelona last year, Ye defended her Asian Games medley titles and promised: “I will be back to my best for the world championships.”
Kazakh Dmitriy Balandin completed a shock breaststroke treble – the first swimming titles for the former Soviet republic at the Games – and Joseph Schooling became the first male Singapore swimmer to win Asian Games gold since 1982 by winning the men’s 100 metres butterfly.