HANGZHOU, CHINA — Swimming stars Zhang Yufei and Siobhan Haughey were primed to battle for gold at the Asian Games on Thursday as South Korea wrought vengeance on hosts China in front of a frenzied eSports crowd.
Hosts China have hoovered up the golds in Hangzhou in everything from beach volleyball and gymnastics to table tennis and wushu, sitting way clear at the top of the medals table.
They have extended that dominance to the pool, one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the Games and boasting Olympic and world champions.
There is added interest this time because the Paris Olympics are less than 10 months away.
China have plundered 19 of the 27 golds so far in swimming, with Zhang and Qin Haiyang both firing warning shots to their Olympic rivals.
The 25-year-old Zhang is chasing a third individual gold medal in Hangzhou after setting scorching times in winning the 100 and 200m butterfly. She also has two relay golds to add to her collection.
She qualified fastest for the 50m freestyle final later Thursday and will go head to head with Hong Kong’s Haughey, who has already won the 100 and 200m free.
The 50m is not Haughey’s favoured event, but it still promises to be a highlight of the day’s action.
World-record holder Qin will be hot favourite to win the men’s 200m breaststroke.
Qin shattered Australian Zac Stubblety-Cook’s historical best at the July world championships in Fukuoka on his way to the gold medal with a blistering 2min 05.48sec.
The in-form star’s 2:11.76 in the Hangzhou heats on day five of pool action was a long way off that, but he was cruising and had plenty left in the tank.
The hulking Qin is also the 50 and 100m breaststroke world champion.
Gold medals were up for grabs on Thursday in 12 sports, among them artistic gymnastics, track cycling and shooting.
In eSports — which is making its debut at the Games as a medal event — South Korea’s Kim Gwan-woo will contest the final of Street Fighter V: Champion Edition.
South Korean athletes at the Games, including eSports players, can controversially earn an exemption from military service if they come home with gold.
Also in eSports, in a rerun of the final five years ago — when it was only a demonstration sport — South Korea defeated China in the semi-finals of League of Legends.
It was revenge for South Korea and their legendary player Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, having lost to China in 2018.
“From the beginning my goal as a coach was to win the title with the team,” said South Korea coach Kim Jeong-gyun.
“We have trained more than anyone this month and I believe we can win.”
The eSports events have proven to be wildly popular with fans, with tickets in strong demand and the overwhelmingly young spectators giving hearty support from the stands.
Fans unable to get into the futuristic-looking 4,500-capacity Hangzhou Esports Center thronged outside in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of their heroes, especially Faker.
On the first day of golf, Japanese amateur Saki Baba shot a seven-under 65 to take a surprise lead in the women’s event.
But it couldn’t spoil Yin Ruoning’s 21st birthday.
The world number two Yin was two shots back in a five-way tie for second after a flawless 67 in front of her home crowd.
“It’s not bad to have a bogey-free round for my 21st,” smiled Yin, known affectionately as “Ronnie” on the LPGA Tour, after she flew out of the blocks with five birdies in her first eight holes.
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