Jakarta: Brash, belligerent and often painted as swimming’s big, bad wolf, Chinese giant Sun Yang will be looking to savage his rivals at the Asian Games.
The triple Olympic champion is poised to swim the men’s 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle in Jakarta — and it would take an astonishing upset to deny him a gold medal sweep.
No shrinking violet, Sun triggered a diplomatic row at the 2014 Asian Games by slamming Japan’s national anthem as “ugly” after being ambushed by Kosuke Hagino in the 200m free in Korea.
Sun was banned for three months in 2014 for taking trimetazidine, prescribed for a heart condition and which had only been included on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of illegal substances four months earlier.
Rival swimmers tore into Sun at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where Australian Mack Horton labelled him a “drug cheat” and Frenchwoman Camille Lacourt sniffed that Sun “pees purple”.
Sun accused then escalated the war of words by accusing Horton of “dirty tactics” after losing his Olympic 400m title to the Australian.
Prowling the pool deck in bling gold headphones before his races, the Chinese star could face less resistance in his bid to win a fistful of gold in Jakarta with Hagino failing to qualify for Japan in the 200m free.
“I can’t relax for a second,” admitted the 26-year-old Sun, who completed a hat-trick of 400m world titles last year in Budapest.
“If you stop pushing, that’s when the problems start,” he told Chinese media. “Rest and recuperation can wait.”
China’s support cast is led by teenager Li Bingjie, who medalled in the women’s 400m and 800m freestyle in Hungary, and charismatic backstroker Fu Yuanhui, a double Asian Games winner in 2014.
Wang Shun, bronze medallist behind Michael Phelps and Hagino in the 200m individual medley at the Rio Olympics, will have hopes of upsetting his Japanese rival.
But Hagino, who captured Olympic gold in the 400m medley, will be favourite to complete another Asian Games double, despite having countryman Daiya Seto breathing down his neck.
Japan also have high hopes for Rikako Ikee, who swept to gold in the women’s 100m butterfly at last week’s Pan Pacific championships.
The 18-year-old also took silver in the 200m freestyle in Tokyo, two years out from the 2020 Olympics in her home city. Ikee will contest the 50 and 100m fly, 50 and 100m free and at least two relays at the Asian Games.
Japan could sweep the men’s breaststroke through Yasuhiro Koseki and Ippei Watanabe, with Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Balandin going off the boil since claiming a shock Olympic title in the 200m.
Meanwhile, Singapore expects Joseph Schooling to retain his 100m butterfly crown after stunning American legend Phelps to win Rio gold.
“Everyone has dips in form, it’s about performing in that precise moment,” said Schooling, already looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympics.
“Look at Michael Phelps — he got seven golds in Athens in 2004 and wasn’t on the radar in 2006,” added the 23-year-old, who is set to swim in the 50 and 100m fly, the 50m free and a couple of relays in Jakarta.
“But everybody knows what happened in 2008.”
Elsewhere, Virdhawal Khade will look to shine in the butterfly after ending India’s 24-year wait for an Asian Games swimming medal in 2010.
Vietnam’s “Little Mermaid” Nguyen Thi Anh Vien carries the hopes of the Southeast Asian nation as the backstroker looks to build on the historic bronze medals she scooped four years ago.