GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Two years after dazzling the world at the Beijing Olympic Games, China gets another chance to show off its economic and sporting might when the 16th Asian Games open in the southern city of Guangzhou on Friday.
After state-driven planning and mass mobilisation of resources delivered a meticulously organised Olympics and took China to the top of the medal count, little surprise organisers have stuck to the formula in the booming Pearl River Delta city.
Apart from 12 new competition venues safely finished weeks and months in advance, Guangzhou has spent billions on new infrastructure while sprucing up subways, ports and city streets.
As in Beijing, Guangzhou residents, not all of whom share the state-cajoled enthusiasm for the multi-sport event, have been bombarded with brochures and text messages to remind them to be on their best behaviour.
Apart from an army of cheery official Games volunteers, tens of thousands of paramilitary police have also been deployed to seal provincial borders and keep a watchful eye for rowdy crowd behaviour among fans spanning a region littered with simmering diplomatic disputes.
Even the weather had been told to behave, with a fleet of aircraft ready to blast threatening clouds out of the sky with chemical-infused missiles, state media have reported.
Another force ready to blow away all challengers is China’s red army of 974 athletes, who will hardly need to break a sweat to top the medals table for an eighth consecutive time in the 45-team field.
Despite the absence of a number of top-class names, including diving queen Guo Jingjing and retired table tennis champion Zhang Yining, China will deploy no fewer than 34 Olympic champions seeking to build confidence two years out from the London Games.
“A lot of old athletes have gone and a lot of new blood has come in. It’s a test to the young athletes,” deputy chef de mission Xiao Tian told reporters.
“We are using the Asian Games as a preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, to discover our new stars, to fight for number one and to fight for the most gold medals.”
China won 316 medals, including 165 gold, at the 2006 Doha Asian Games to leave South Korea (58 golds) a distant second.
Team officials insist they have no medal target for Guangzhou but their athletes have been charged with beating Doha’s medal count and should have little trouble on home soil.
China has medal chances in most of the 42 sports at the Games and is likely to sweep the table tennis and badminton medals. They will also hope to rack up a raft of titles among the shooting, weightlifting, diving and gymnastics.
All eyes will be on 110 metres hurdler and 2004 Athens Olympic champion Liu Xiang, who has been a shadow of his former dominant self since limping out of the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium in Beijing two years ago ahead of his title defence.
After losing his world mark and Olympic crown to Cuban Dayron Robles, Liu has only his Asian Games title to hang onto, but will face stiff competition from compatriot Shi Dongpeng to find winning form on the road to London.
China’s status as top Asian dog will go unchallenged, but the battle for second is likely to be fierce.
Traditionally strong teams South Korea and Japan may face a challenge from a resurgent India, with the team flush from their Delhi Commonwealth Games success after pipping an under-strength England into second place in the medal standings.
The crowning jewel in Japan’s team is double Olympic 100 and 200 metres breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima, who leads a streamlined 29-member swimming squad that should stall China’s medal-making machine in the pool.
Japan will also fancy their chances in track and field, wrestling and their native martial arts of judo and karate.
Bitter rivals South Korea will inevitably seek to dent Japan’s goal of a second place finish and have targeted seven more gold medals than at Doha.
They expect 10 champions alone out of 16 golds on offer in taekwondo and also hope to reap medals in judo, archery, wrestling and the team sports of baseball, soccer and men’s volleyball.
India finished eighth in the medal standings at Doha but after their Commonwealth Games efforts have pledged to keep the good times rolling in Guangzhou with strength in shooting, boxing and wrestling.
Delhi hero and double world record holder in the air rifle discipline Gagan Narang leads the charge at Guangzhou, while glamour girl Sania Mirza holds Indian hopes of beating Chinese number one Li Na in the tennis singles.
But even before athletes get down to business, China’s shock-and-awe campaign will be well underway with the opening ceremony on Friday, where organisers have promised a show “as fantastical as a dream.”
Rather than march out into a packed stadium, athletes will be ferried on a flotilla of 45 boats to an island on the Pearl River as part of a ceremony boasting 6,000 cavorting participants and promising the Chinese love of fireworks.
Editing by John O'Brien; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org