Liu Xiang ends David Oliver's win streak in Shanghai (Errol Anderson) © Copyright
Preview Kobe, Japan

Japan hoping to rise to the occasion in Kobe - Asian champs PREVIEW

Qualification for the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Daegu and next year's Olympic Games should be on the minds of a majority of the athletes as they get down to compete in the 19th Asian Athletics Championships at the Kobe Universiade Stadium, from 7-10 July.

Japan is hosting its first continental championships after the 1998 edition in Fukuoka. Then, the host was in near full strength. This time, though, this is not the case, especially in the distance events. But with three entries possible in each of the events, Japan could be more formidable than ever before in recent memory.

Unlike China, which invariably fields some of its best athletes, Japan had been finding it difficult to enter its top-ranked athletes in these biennial championships. It did in the 2005 edition in Incheon, Korea, and was again in good strength last time in Guangzhou in 2009.

Not all the Chinese toppers are here, but the one man whom Asia wants to see more than anyone else, Liu Xiang, is in the fray. He should be fine-tuning his preparations for the Worlds in Daegu next month after having gotten off to a great start this season.

China topped the medals tally last time in these championships, with 18 gold medals. It was not a complete domination as could have been expected when China hosted the meet. Japan took 12 gold medals while coming second while the next best was two each by Iran, Bahrain and Kazakhstan.

Japan, however, suffered unexpected setbacks in the sprints in the Asian Games in the same city a year later. It lost in the sprint relay battle, too with the men’s team not even qualifying for the final, after a botched up exchange. Masashi Eriguchi had gone into the Games as the odds-on-favourite to take the sprint title, but failed to make the final.

Eriguchi is once again in the Japanese line-up and he should be thirsting for revenge. But it is his team-mate, Yusuke Kotani, who goes in as the leader in the continent’s season list with his 10.28s in Hiroshima last April.

China, in the meantime, has not entered the Asian Games champion Lao Yi or the defefending champion Zhang Peimeng in the 100m.

Liu Xiang's march towards Daegu continues

Liu Xiang’s presence should add glamour to the championships just as it did in the last edition at home when thousands of Chinese thronged the Olympic Stadium in Guangzhou to greet their hero. Then he was coming back, after just one race early season, following his injury the previous season that robbed him of possible glory in the Olympics.

This season Liu Xiang started strongly in his build-up towards  Daegu, clocking 13.00, coming second to American David Oliver’s season-leading 12.94 in the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. This was Liu Xiang’s best timing since winning the World championships in Osaka in August 2007, in 12.95s. Needless to say, he towers above the rest in Asia, with team-mate Shi Dongpeng at 13.44 (seventh at Eugene) being the Number two in for the season.

Ogunode the 200m favourite

Qatar’s new find who caused quite a sensation last year by winning the 200m-400m double in the Asian Games, Femi Seun Ogunode, will be gunning for the 200m alone here. He tops the charts for the season with his 20.30 for the second place in the Samsung Diamond League meeting in Doha in May. The 20-year-old former Nigerian looks destined to add the continental title to the Asian Games double.

The best from West Asia has not been entered and that means the shine could be off somewhat from some of the middle distance and distance events. Possibly, many athletes are preserving themselves in the distance events, though that need not be the case in middle distance events.

Quite often, the Kenyan, Ethiopian or Moroccan-born athletes, representing Qatar and Bahrain, have completely dominated the middle distance and long distance events that the others hardly get an opportunity to sneak in. This time, though the Japanese might have their best chance in a long time.

Hot men's 800m in the works

The contest in the men’s 800m should be keen, with the top five for the season entered. Kuwaiti Mohamed Mutal Al-Azimi heads that field with 1:45.35, but it should be the Iranian, Sajad Moradi on whom the rest could be keeping a watch as they come off the final bend. The 28-year-old Iranian showed a great finish in Guangzhou to win the Asian Games gold with the ease of a champion in 1:45.45.

Bahrain’s Bilal Mansour Ali, who admitted being outkicked by almost everyone on the straight after leading, is back in the fray, looking out to salvage his reputation.  He had topped the Asian lists lasts season with 1:44.80, but he could not deliver when it mattered most.

Missing from the men’s 1500m will be Mohamed Othman Shahween, defending champion and Asian Games champion from Saudi Arabia, who had a national record of 3:31.82 in Hengelo in May. In his absence, it could be a toss-up among  Omar Awadh Al-Rashidi of Kuwait and the Japanese,  Hiroshi Ino and Yuya Konishi, with Korean Shin Sang-Min capable of pulling off a surprise.

The Japanese have  the best chance to claim the titles in the 5000m and 10,000m after a long time. They top the charts or at least pack the top 20 almost every year in these events but more often than not success at the continental level eludes them.

Toshinari Takaoka was the last Japanese to win the 5000m, at home in Fukuoka, back in 1998. Kunimitsu Itoh had the honour of taking the last 10,000m, when Japan hosted the 1981 championships in Tokyo. The Japanese swept the 10k medals that time.

Kazuya Watanabe who clocked a personal best 13:23.15 this season, heads the Japanese challenge in the 5000 while Tsuyoshi Ugachi (PB 27:41.97 this season) tops the season lists in 10,000. Quite a number of regulars are missing this time, prominent among them being Essa Ismail Rasheed and Abdullah Ahmad Hassan of Qatar and Hasan Mahboob Ali of Bahrain.

Moataz Essa Barshim, World junior champion from Qatar and barely 20, improved his own national record to 2.32m at Ystad, Sweden, in June. He should be a strong favourite in High Jump. And so should be Daichi Sawano of Japan who leads the Pole Vault field with 5.62.

Su Xiongfeng and Li Jinzhe of China, Lin Ching-Hsuan of Chinese Taipei, Rikiya Saruyama of Japan and Ahmed Nezar Al-Shourafa of Saudi Arabia are among the 8-metre-plus long jumpers this season and it could be expected that the main fight should involve these athletes.

In triple jump the primary contest looks to be between Dong Bin and Li Yanxi of China, with season leader Kim Duk-Hyung fo Korea not competing.

The fortunes of defending shot put champion Om Prakash Singh Karhana seem to have taken a dip in recent months. He did not win anything in the Commonwealth Games at home or the Asian Games in China. He will have a tough time retaining his title here.

The Indian has not done better than 19.10m this season. He won the title last time with a throw of 19.87. Chinese Taipei’s Chang Ming-Huang silver winner last time, looks to be in splendid form, with a best of 20.06 and three other marks of 19.75 or better. Chinese Zhang Jun (SB 19.85) is the other major contender.

When you talk of discus, the name of Ehsan Hadadi comes to mind. The two-time Asian Games champion and former World junior champion is poised to strike his fourth successive gold in the Asian championships. The Asian record holder in discus, at 69.32m, has a season best 65.89m, and only Indian Vikas Gowda looks to be capable of stretching him, if at all.

Gowda also has had a good season, with three marks over 64 metres, the best being 64.91m at Chula Vista, USA, on 9 June. Iranian Mohammad Samimi, also over 64 metres this season, should be the other major player at the discus cage.

In the absence of  Koji Murofushi, Tajikistan’s Dilshod Nazarov and Kuwaiti Ali Mohammed Al-Zankwai should fight it out for the hammer title. Nazarov is the defending champion and the Asian Games champion.

Japanese Yukifumi Murakami, World championship bronze medallist in 2009, should start the favourite once again in javelin. He had won the last time as well as in the Asian Games last year. He has a best of 82.90m for the season and only Chinese Chen Qi, champion in 2007, is the other man to have crossed 80 metres this season.

Without Dmitriy Karpov of Kazakhstan the Decathlon lacks the class that could have been expected at this level.  Even Keisuke Ushiro, the Japanese who is the other man to have crossed 8000 points this season (8073), will be absent. Uzbek Rifat Artikov (SB 7975), Korean Kim Kun-Woo (7755), Japanese Akihiko Nakamura (7675) and Indian Bharatinder Singh (7658, National record) are the other leading contenders.

The women’s section should once again see the dominance of the Chinese in jumps and throws with the Kazakhs, Japanese and the Indians challenging them on the track.

Unlike the Japanese men, the women fared better in the sprints at the Asian Games. The sprint double winner in the Asian Games, Japanese Chisato Fukushima, though she tops the 100m this season (11.24s) will only be running the 200m, where also she is No. 1 for the season, with 23.13.

The most sensational strides have been made by the 19-year-old Kazakh Olga Bludova, who is second in the season charts with 11.37. The Kazakh woman who made the semifinals in the last Asian Games, has six of her best timings for the 100m this season. She could stretch the No. 1. Japanese entry in the 100m, Kana Ichikawa and veteran Uzbek Guzel Khubbieva, who swept the Asian Grand Prix titles in May.

Sri Lankan Chandrika Subhashini and Kazakh Marina Maslenko are the leading 400m runners vying for individual honours.

Amidst the expected domination by the Central Asians in the 800m (Viktoriya Yalovtseva and Margarita Matsko of Kazakhstan and Anna Sidorova of Uzbekistan) will be the attempt by Indian Tintu Luka to wrest her first Asian title. Last time she managed only sixth place, her inexperience clearly showing out in rather unpleasant weather conditions. She was outkicked on the straight in the Asian Games, too, though she managed to hang on for the bronze.

She is more experienced now, though a hamstring strain had curtailed her training early season. Vietnamese Truong Thanh Hang, always a difficult customer to shake off on the straight, should challenge the best.

One could  have expected Japan to field their best in the women’s middle and long distance events, but that has not happened. Also absent would be the the world champion in the 1500m, Maryam Yusuf Jamal and her colleague Mimi Belete. With the field being thin, the middle distance and distance events could be anyone’s for the taking.

The thin fields in distance events might make them rather uneventful. The 3000m steeplechase may not be an exception, too. Though the Japanese have not entered their best in the 10,000 metres, they should fancy their chances better than the others. In steeplechase,  Indian Sudha Singh had pulled off a surprise in the Asian Games. Japanese Minori Hayakami, bronze medallist in the games, is the leading steeplechaser this season. She could be the favourite this time.

In the women’s 100m Hurdles,  Korean Lee Yeon Kyong, surprise winner in the last Asian Games, has not been entered. Chinese Sun Yawei and Wu Shijiao look strong and like in the men’s high hurdles it could be a duel between two Chinese.

Japanese Satomi Kubokura should be the favourite in the 400m Hurdles. The absence of the Chinese should facilitate her ascent.

The women’s jumps should  should bring out keen contests. Chinese Zheng Xingjuan, Kazakh Marina Aitova and Uzbek Svetlana Radzivil have been in great form in the run-up in High Jump and one can expect close contests and new highs. Radzivil was the dominant jumper during the Asian Grand Prix and she could be hard to beat.

The Chinese normally dominate Pole Vault though Korean Choi Yun-Hee has cleared 4.40m, the same height as Chinese Li Ning, this season.  The two could raise the bar higher on this occasion and it could turn out to be a classic contest.

India will be pinning its hopes on Mayookha Johny and M. A. Prajusha in Long Jump and Triple Jump. They will have the likes of Yulia Tarasova in Long Jump  (SB 6.68),  and Li Yanmei (SB 14.39) and Xie Limei (SB 14.16) of China and Anastasiya Juravlyeva (SB 14.32) in Triple Jump.

Even without their best being fielded, China looks strong in all the throws events. Liu Xiangrong and Meng Qianqian (Shot Put), Ma Xuejun and Sun Taifeng (Discus Throw) and Liu Tingting (Hammer Throw) are not exactly the toppers in China in their events. But given the field, they look formidable.

In the Javelin Throw, China has entered its current top athlete Liu Chunhua. Indian Sushmita Singha Roy (5625 points) is the best in the field in Heptathlon.

By an IAAF correspondent