Sept 10 (Reuters) - China’s dominance of the gymnastics competition at the Asian Games is expected to continue unabated despite their sport’s officials conceding they were sending what was essentially a ‘B’ team to compete at Incheon.
While the Chinese have won 123 of the 175 gold medals awarded since artistic gymnastics was introduced at the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, their priority this year is on the world championships, scheduled for Nanning from Oct. 3-12, rather than the pan-continental competition.
Chinese media have said that multiple Olympic champion Zou Kai will headline their contingent for the Sept. 21-25 competition in Incheon, where 14 gold medals are up for grabs.
Zou, who won three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was dropped from China’s team for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou because of his apparent weakness in events that did not make him a contender for the all-around title.
He returned to the team in 2011 and then defended his Olympic floor title at London, anchored China to the team title and secured a bronze in the horizontal bar.
His six Olympic medals make him the most decorated Chinese gymnast of all time and tied as the most successful Chinese athlete across all sports.
While Zou will headline the Chinese team, local hopes will rest on Olympic vault champion Yang Hak-seon, the two-time world champion in the discipline.
Yang first shot to prominence by winning the vault title at the 2010 Asian Games and then followed that with the gold in London two years later, becoming the first South Korean to win an Olympics gymnastics gold.
He retained his world title in the event last year in Antwerp and told local media he would look to use his customised “Yang 2” vault at Incheon, even though he was successfully landing it less than 50 percent of the time in training.
His biggest threat in the event is expected to be North Korea’s Ri Se Gwang, the vault champion at the 2006 Asian Games.
Men’s Olympic all-around champion Kohei Uchimura is also expected to lead Japan’s challenge at Incheon and with China sending a weakened squad no doubt keen to usurp their stranglehold on the team’s event having finished second behind them in the past two Olympics.
The rhythmic gymnastics will also be affected by their own world championships, which are in Izmir, Turkey from Sept. 22-28 with the Asian Games competition held on Oct. 1-2.
South Korea’s Son Yeon-jae, who finished fifth at the London Olympics, will rush from Turkey to Incheon where she is the hot favourite to win gold in the all-around competition.
The 20-year-old became the first Korean to win a rhythmic gymnastics medal when she took bronze in Guangzhou and become one of Korea’s more high-profile athletes where she tops polls as the country’s favourite athlete.
She is the highest-ranked Asian in the sport, though will face a tough challenge from China’s Deng Senyue, who pipped her for two individual apparatus medals at last year’s Asian Championships, even though Son won the all-around title.
While the powerhouses have chosen to concentrate on the world championships, several of the smaller nations have been beset by selection squabbles and concerns over continued funding if they do not perform in Korea.
Bangladesh’s London Olympian Quazi Syque Caesar, who was born and raised in the United States, was only included in the team after intervention by the country’s sports minister.
The Bangladesh Olympic Association (BOA) decided not to send any gymnasts after Caesar failed to make the all-around final at the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and BOA official Rafiqul Islam told Bangladesh’s Daily Star the 23-year-old’s future selection depended on a better performance at Incheon.
Malaysia’s Gymnastics Federation also opted not to send any male athletes to Incheon, prompting an angry outburst by Mohd Hamzaruddin Nordin, who failed to qualify for an apparatus final in Glasgow.
“It’s very disappointing. Sometimes, it can’t just all be about medals. We need to gain some experience too,” he was quoted as saying by the Malaysian Star last month.
Hong Kong’s gymnasts Angel Wong Hiu-ying, Shek Wai-hung and Ng Kiu-chung, however, have been placed under additional pressure with the sport’s future hanging in the balance.
“This is a do-or-die situation for us,” Hong Kong Gymnastics Association Chairman Cheung Siu-yin told the South China Morning Post about the possibility they could lose their centralised funding next March if they did not win any medals in Incheon.
”Our gymnasts also understand the importance of the event and have already done their best preparation for the Incheon Games with a medal their target.
“We don’t want to put them under extra pressure, but this is the reality.” (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)