LONDON (Reuters) - While China tussles for top spot in the Olympic medal standings with the United States, the race to be best of the rest in Asia will come down to another battle between bitter rivals South Korea and Japan at the London Games.
Sleeping giants India have ploughed money into sport in recent years and have high hopes of more individual success following shooter Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal in Beijing, but they are unlikely to break into the top 10 anytime soon.
Any kind of victory over former colonial masters Japan is enough to put a broad smile on even the most stony-faced Korean, and finishing higher on the Olympics medal table in London would carry extra significance.
The 1948 London Games were the first Olympics that Korea competed as a separate nation and not under the Japanese flag.
“The Olympic Games will serve as an occasion for national harmony and festivities, bringing 50 million South Koreans together as one,” said Park Yong-sung, president of the Korean Olympic Committee.
“And this year’s London Olympics is even more significant, because it was also in London in 1948 that we first competed as ‘Korea.'”
South Korea won 13 gold medals in Beijing to finish seventh on the table, one place above Japan. They have targeted a modest 10 golds and a top 10 finish in London but it is no secret they would be over the moon with a repeat of 2008.
As in Beijing, the Koreans’ sporting strength lies in archery and taekwondo and they could easily take seven gold medals from those events alone.
Also in with a chance of winning gold is swimmer Park Tae-hwan, who won the 400m freestyle in Beijing, while Koreans could also strike gold in fencing, gymnastics, judo and wrestling.
After the misery of last year’s deadly tsunami and nuclear crisis, Japan could be forgiven for regarding sport as an insignificance, but the Japanese contingent hope a good performance in London will lift the entire country.
Track cyclist Kazunari Watanabe is a long shot to medal but wants his participation in London to inspire.
Watanabe’s hometown of Futuba was left a no-man’s land in the aftermath of the nuclear crisis at the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant.
“I want to be power for the people in Futaba and Fukushima at this Olympics and will aim for the gold medal. I want to help them and bring them some light as an athlete.”
After a tremendous fifth place in Athens where they won 16 golds, Japan returned from Beijing disappointed with nine as several of their leading hopes failed to perform.
However, they have set a target of 15 golds for London, with the martial art of judo tipped to produce eight despite the lack of experience in the team.
Kohei Uchimura is expected to turn Beijing silver into London gold in the men’s all round gymnastics, while Japan’s World Cup winning women will target a dream double in the soccer competition.
Swimmer Kosuke Kitajima, who has achieved the double-double by winning the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the 2004 and 2008 Games, has bounced back from a terrible 2011 and has topped the rankings in the events this year and could be the first man to win the same swimming event at three successive Games.
Pint-sized wrestler Saori Yoshida could be the most fearsome athlete in any sport at the Games and having never tasted defeat at an Olympics she is short odds to win her third consecutive gold in the women’s 55kg division.
“I won’t lose,” she told reporters in the run-up to London. “Not if I fight the way I know I can, and have trained for.”
Among the smaller sporting nations, Mongolia will look to their traditional combat sports and hunting skills to deliver medals in wrestling, judo and shooting while North Korean weightlifters and boxers usually bring home a gold medal.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury