Japan set to dominate Asian Games swimming
Even without Tomoko Hagiwara, Japan look set to dominate the Asian Games swimming meet, which gets under way in Pusan on Monday.
Japan beat main rivals China 15-13 in the gold medal standings in Bangkok four years ago and, if anything, have even more strength in depth at the 14th Asian Games in South Korea.
Hagiwara, who won a record four titles at the Japanese nationals in June, pulled out of the Games with a stress-related disorder after collapsing on the pool deck midway through the Pan Pacific championships in Yokohama last month.
The 22-year-old, who had won gold in the 200 individual medley before falling ill, was scheduled to compete in the 100 and 200 metres freestyle, the 200 backstroke, 200 individual medley and three relays at the Asian Games.
Her absence will give hope to the Chinese relay squads, as well as Qi Hui and Zhou Yafei, either of whom could profit in the 200 individual medley next week.
Qi Hui is already the hot favourite to win gold in the 200 breaststroke, an event for which she holds the world record.
Meanwhile, Chinese team mate Luo Xuejuan, who won double gold in the 50 and 100 breaststroke at last year's world championships in Fukuoka, is another who has trained specifically to peak at the Asian Games.
However, Japan are unlikely to face too many threats in the men's competition, where Kosuke Kitajima will come under the spotlight after winning gold in the 100 metres breaststroke at the Pan Pacific championships despite a sore elbow.
The 20-year-old insisted earlier this week that he was returning to full fitness after an elbow injury forced him out of the 200 breaststroke and 200 individual medley in Yokohama.
"The pain in my elbow has gone now but I still have some way to go before hitting my best form. I'll make up for it with heart, though," he told reporters in Tokyo.
Team mate Daisuke Kimura, who took bronze in the 200 breaststroke in his absence, will be ready to seize his opportunity again if Kitajima breaks down again.
Meanwhile, Takashi Yamamoto is in shape to defend the 100 and 200 metres butterfly titles he won in Bangkok in 1998 after winning Pan Pacific bronze in the 200 behind Americans Tom Malchow and Michael Phelps.
Japan's quality runs deep in the freestyle events with reigning 200 metres champion Yosuke Ichikawa likely to be pushed by team mates Daisuke Hosokawa, Shinichi Fujita and teenager Yoshihiro Okumura in the shorter distances.
The most intense rivalry is likely to be among the women, however. In particular, the showdown between Chen Hua of China and Japanese rival Sachiko Yamada in the 400 and 800 metres freestyle could be one to watch.
Chen took gold ahead of Yamada in both events in Bangkok but Yamada, who broke the 800 short course world record in April, is primed for revenge after silver medal performances in the 800 and 1,500 metres at the Pan Pacific championships.
Japan and China missed gold medals in just two of 32 finals in 1998. Their Asian rivals are unlikely to upset that supremacy this time round either.