HANGZHOU: China has been the overall winner of the Asian Games since 1982 and as the host of this edition, it will no doubt try to take the glory when the official medal chase begins tomorrow.
As China hosts it for the third time after Beijing in 1990 and Guangzhou in 2010, it has an even bigger task this time - to showcase to the world the greatness of the country in terms of sporting achievements, organisation and rapid technological development.
In terms of athlete performance, China, which has dominated the Asian Games for four decades, has not announced an overall target, but the Tokyo 2020 Olympic runner-up has hinted at continuing to dominate in several sports including diving, table tennis, wushu and rowing.
It is a different story for the Malaysian contingent, who are hoping to bounce back from their worst-ever performance in the Cambodia SEA Games in May and to build a projection for the 2024 Paris Olympics, which is less than a year away.
The national contingent, which came to Hangzhou with 289 athletes, did not announce a gold medal target for the first time in decades but set a target of 27 medals because it did not want to put pressure on athletes, which was criticised as a safe approach which lacks confidence.
The target this time is lower than 36 medals achieved at the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games, namely seven gold, 13 silver and 16 bronze, to finish the challenge at 14th overall.
Prior to the start of the continental multi-sport event, Malaysia had already lost two gold, six silver and four bronze medals as Tenpin Bowling (2-2-0) and Pencak Silat (0-4-4) were not represented at the Games this year.
The first medal in Hangzhou is expected as early as tomorrow in wushu. At stake is 2017 world champion Wong Weng Son (men’s changquan), while two-time 2019/2020 world champion Tan Cheong Min (women’s nanquan & nandao) is expected to deliver a medal on Tuesday.
The national line-up suffered a major setback after national track cycling ace Datuk Mohd Azizulhasni Awang was forced to withdraw from the quadrennial Games due to injuries he sustained in a training accident on Sept 15.
Other cyclists, especially Jalur Gemilang bearer Muhammad Shah Firdaus Sahrom (keirin, men’s sprint), were expected to prove their ability to lead Malaysia to success despite the absence of ‘The Pocket Rocketman’.
The squash camp has the potential to win gold through S. Sivasangari in the women’s singles, who is also one of the national flag bearers at the opening ceremony tomorrow, while Aifa Azman, Rachel Arnold, Ng Eain Yow and Ivan Yuen will bolster the national team as medal contenders.
In badminton, 2022 world champion men’s doubles Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik, women’s doubles aces Pearly Tan-M. Thinaah and Ng Tze Yong (men’s singles) have shown that they have what it takes to fight for the podium in the badminton competition, although the Malaysian Badminton Association (BAM) is only aiming for gold in the men’s team event.
The presence of professional players like former All England champion Lee Zii Jia (men’s singles), former world junior champion Goh Jin Wei (women’s singles) and 2023 Asian Games runner-up Ong Yew Sin-Teo Ee Yi (men’s doubles) has also boosted confidence in the national camp.
The men’s hockey team, which finished second, is determined to win gold for the first time since Tokyo hosted the tournament in 1958, and to end a 20-year Olympic absence as the Asian Games champion gets an automatic ticket to Paris 2024.
The sepak takraw team are also aiming to win gold in the inter-squad and team events, but will have to beat mighty Thailand if they are to make history.
In diving, a sport dominated by hosts China, it is considered difficult to break the dominance, especially as national divers Datuk Pandela Rinong and Nor Dhabitah Sabri have had disappointing performances, but it is hoped that they will turn positive after the central training camp in China last month.
Young divers like Bertrand Rhodict are also expected to salvage some pride for the national contingent.
In athletics, US-based athletes Muhammad Azeem Mohd Fahmi (men’s 100m, 4x100m) and Shereen Samson Vallabouy (women’s 200m, 400m, 4x100m) and Muhammad Irfan Shamshuddin (men’s discus throw), all of whom have set national records, will have to be at their best to end their medal drought since the 2006 edition in Doha.
The karate camp led by R. Sharmendran, archery squad led by Olympic champion Khairul Anuar Mohamad in the recurve discipline and Mohd Juwaidi Mazuki in the compound discipline, the equestrian team led by Mohd Qabil Ambak Mahamad Fathil with sailing are also touted as medal hopefuls.
Several world champions and Olympic champions like Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand (badminton), Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar (men’s high jump), Neeraj Chopra of India (men’s javelin throw), Rikako Ikee of Japan (swimming) and Qin Haiyang of China (swimming) are among those who will be in the limelight at the Games.
Malaysia’s best performance at the Asian Games was in the 2010 edition in Guangzhou when the country won nine gold, 18 silver and 14 bronze medals and collected a total of 41 medals. - Bernama