Athletes from Southeast Asia, the subcontinent and elsewhere are hoping to make an impact at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling, Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura and wrestler Risako Kawai are among those defending gold medals in Tokyo, while Malaysian track cyclist Azizulhasni Awang (bronze) and Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz (silver) will be looking to improve on their podium places from Rio 2016.
Here are some of the top Asian athletes from outside China and Hong Kong who are hoping to win gold in Tokyo.
Joseph Schooling (Singapore, swimming)
Age: 26 (June 16, 1995)
Asian record-holder for 50m butterfly and 100m butterfly (long course)
100m Butterfly (long course), No. 13
50m Butterfly (long course), No. 70
2018: Asian Games, 50m butterfly, gold
2018: Asian Games, 100m butterfly, gold
2017: SEA Games, 50m butterfly & 100m butterfly, gold
2017: Fina World Championships, 100m butterfly, joint-bronze
2016: Rio Olympics, 100m butterfly, gold
The 25-year-old defeated his childhood idol Michael Phelps to achieve Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold medal in Rio five years ago. He also set an Olympic record at 50.39.
He is expected to meet his strong rival, American Caeleb Dressel, who bagged the world records in the 100m butterfly with 49.50 in 2019, in Tokyo.
“I want to be the best version I can be. Medal wise, of course, everyone who goes to the Olympics, most of them want to win. If not, why do we do this every day. But if there’s one thing I can be honest with myself, it’s not getting a gold medal.”
“It’s being the best version I can be on that day where I need to step up my race. And the rest, fate will decide, right? All you can do is control the outcome of your own swimming, that’s it.”
Hidilyn Diaz (Philippines, weightlifting)
Age: 30 (Feb 20, 1991)
Women 55kg, number four
2020: Roma 2020 World Cup, women’s 55kg, gold
2019: World Championships, women’s 55kg, bronze
2019: Southeast Asian Games, women’s 55kg, gold
2018: Asian Games, women’s 53kg, gold
2016: Rio Olympics, women’s 53kg weight division, silver
As the country’s first medal winner in 20 years in the 2016 Olympics, Diaz’s goal is to become the Philippines’ first gold medallist in her fourth Olympic Games.
Although she must take part in a new weight class, with the 53kg category revised to 55kg, she believes 55kg is a good weight for her body, and is confident that she can perform well.
She already proved that with her recent performances in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games and 2020 World Cup.
“Way back, I didn’t really appreciate who I was. I was insecure with my body, with the muscles I have. But I have learned to overcome that now.”
“When I appreciate my body, when I appreciate my sport, when I appreciate myself, that is the time I do my best in training and in competition. I do my best because this is the sport I love.”
Azizulhasni Awang (Malaysia, track cycling)
Age: 33 (Jan 5, 1988)
Men’s keirin, number two
Men’s sprint, number five
2020: World Championships, men’s keirin & men’s Sprint, bronze
2017 World Championships, men’s keirin, gold
2016: World Championships, men’s keirin, bronze
2016: Olympics, men’s keirin, bronze
Also known as the “Pocket Rocketman”, the 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist is attempting to win Malaysia’s first gold medal at the Olympics.
Azizul regained the world number one ranking in the individual sprint in February 2021, which he said was a boost for his confidence ahead of the Tokyo competition. Azizul is famous for suffering a gruesome injury in 2011 in Manchester when a wooden splint went right through his left calf.
“At that time I thought of the faces of my wife, children and parents who sacrificed a lot for my career. At that time I also thought of the coach and teammates who always supported me. I also thought of the support and prayers from 32.6 million Malaysians.”
Eumir Marcial (Philippines, boxing)
Age: 25 (Oct 29, 1995)
Professional record 1-0
2019: SEA Games, men’s middleweight, gold
2019: AIBA World Boxing Championships, men’s middleweight, silver
2017: SEA Games, men’s middleweight, gold
Trained by his father while growing up in Zamboanga, Marcial, who turned pro in 2020, is seen as the next Manny Pacquiao. Although he failed to qualify for the Rio Games, Marcial took successive gold medals in the Southeast Asian Games in the following years.
In the middleweight boxing finals in 2019, it took him only 71 seconds to knock out his opponent to win gold. Under the wing of Pacquiao’s coach Freddie Roach, Marcial is putting his pro career temporarily aside to concentrate on the Olympics.
“I want to get the gold. I will train hard. I want to give gold to my father. That’s my gift to him.”
Savate Sresthaporn (Thailand, skeet and trap shooting)
Age: 58 (April 13, 1963)
World No 65
2019: SEA Games, men’s trap, gold
2019: SEA Games, men’s trap team, bronze
2019: Skeet Shooting World Cup, second
The former pilot only started out as a skeet shooter at the age of 41 after quitting his job as a pilot at his mother’s request. He joined the national team a year later.
He finally won a ticket to the Olympics skeet and trap shooting event after winning silver at the Skeet Shooting World Cup. Although he is unlikely to be a medal contender, Savate’s status as one of the oldest Olympians is expected to attract plenty of attention.
“When doing something, I always set goals – since becoming a pilot, since becoming a skeet shooter. The highest point is going to the Olympics. Others saw it as impossible, they saw it as an unlikely dream because of my age. But I never gave up.”
Rikako Ikee (Japan, swimming)
Age: 21 (July 4, 2000)
50m butterfly: #20
100m butterfly: #20
2018: Asian Games, 50m freestyle, gold
2018: Asian Games, 100m freestyle, gold
2018: Asian Games, 50m butterfly, gold
2018: Asian Games, 100m butterfly, gold
2018: Asian Games, 4x100m freestyle, gold
2018: Asian Games, 4x100m medley, gold
2018: Fina Swimming World Cup in Tokyo, 100m butterfly, gold
Ikee was one of Japan’s medal hopefuls at the Olympic Games but her life changed when she was diagnosed with leukaemia in early 2019.
She has since recovered and her swimming return was helped by the Olympics being delayed, although she failed to qualify for individual events. She did, however, qualify for the 4x100m freestyle and medley relays.
Ikee emerged as a potential Japanese star with six gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games and, although individual titles are beyond her in Tokyo, she is now targeting glory at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to win for a long time. But I trained hard to win. And in the end, I came into the race telling myself I’m back. And so I feel that, even if you go through suffering and pain, your hard work will always be rewarded.”
Naomi Osaka (Japan, tennis)
Age: 23 (Oct 16, 1997)
WTA world number two
2021: Australian Open champion
2020: US Open champion
2019: Australian Open champion
2018: US Open champion
Naomi Osaka is the first and only Asian in history to be ranked number one in the world and is also a four-time grand slam champion. The Japanese-American has one of the fastest serves on record at 125mph (212km/h), only slightly slower than Serena Williams’ 128mph serve.
The 23-year-old withdrew from the French Open citing depression following her decision to boycott post-match media duties. Although Osaka has lived and trained in the US since she was three years old, the Japan-born player will be representing the hosts.
“It is a special feeling to aim for the Olympics as a representative of Japan. I think that playing with the pride of the country will make me feel more emotional.”
Jonatan Christie (Indonesia, badminton)
Age: 23 (Sept 15, 1997)
BWF men’s singles, world number seven
2020: Asia Team Championships, men’s team, gold
2019: Southeast Asian Games, men’s team, gold
2018: Asian Games, men’s singles, gold
2017: SEA Games, men’s singles, gold
Nicknamed Jojo, Christie made his mark with an impressive gold in the 2018 Asian Games. Clocking 216 career wins, Christie and team member Anthony Ginting are the players Indonesia has pinned hopes on for international glory.
Despite Christie’s past few tournaments being less than stellar, having been knocked out of the two Thailand Opens 2021, he remains Indonesia’s main ticket to reclaim the nation’s Olympics legacy. Badminton is only sport in which Indonesia have won Olympic gold medals.
“I keep in my mind that some day, I will make Indonesia proud.”
Risako Kawai (Japan wrestling)
Age: 26 (Nov 21, 1994)
Women’s 57kg, ranked number one
Tokyo 2020 seeding: number one
2020: Asian Championship, 57kg, gold
2019: World Championship, 57kg, gold
2018: World Championship, 59kg, gold
2017: World Championship, 60kg, gold
2016: Olympics, middleweight, freestyle (63kg), gold
Japan’s wrestling star defeated compatriot and legend Kaori Icho – a 10-time world champion who was unbeatable at four consecutive Olympics – in the 2019 National Invitational Championship to secure a spot to represent their home country in the 57kg division.
The three-time world champion took a risk by dropping down a weight division – forcing her to confront Icho – in her bid to qualify for the Olympics with her sister, Yukako, a 62kg silver medallist at the 2018 World Championships.
“I chose this path so that my sister and I can go to the Olympics together.”
Kuo Hsing-chun (Taiwan, weightlifting)
Age: 27 (Nov 26, 1993)
Women’s 59kg, ranked number one
2019: World Championship, 59kg, gold
2019: Asian Championship, 59kg, golf
2018: World Championship, 59kg, gold
2018: Asian Games, 58kg, gold
2016: Olympics, lightweight 58kg, bronze
The four-time world champion and five-time Asian champion is dubbed Taiwan’s “Goddess of weightlifting”.
At the Asian Weightlifting Championships in April, the first international event Kuo took part in after the pandemic, she set two world records, previously held by North Korea’s Choe Hyo-sim and herself, and captured three gold medals that sealed her place on Taiwan’s Olympic team.
Choe, Kuo’s major rival in recent years, will not compete in Tokyo because North Korea has pulled out of the 2020 Olympics citing Covid-19 concerns.
“To me, an extra year (to Tokyo Olympics) is a huge challenge, as I am almost 27. Age is one of the concerns. However, I will think positively.”
Bajrang Punia (India, wrestling)
Age: 27 (Feb 26, 1994)
Freestyle 65kg, world number one
2021: Asian Championships, 65kg, silver
2020: Asian Championships, 65kg, silver
2019: World Championships, 65kg, bronze
2019: Asian Championship, 65kg, gold
2018: Commonwealth Games, 65kg, gold
2018: Asian Games, 65kg, gold
As the world number one in the 65kg category and also the first Indian wrestler to fight at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden, Punia expected a “tough ride” to Tokyo because the delay forced him to rethink his preparations.
However, it also gave him extra time to fine-tune his weaknesses.
He settled for a silver medal in the Asian Championship in April after dropping out of the final because of an elbow injury. He started feeling the pain during the quarter-final and his coach advised him not to take risks so close to the Olympics.
“In this situation, if I win a medal, I will dedicate it to our Covid warriors, all our front-line workers, including all our doctors, policemen, soldiers and everyone else who has been at the forefront of fighting Covid.”
PV Sindhu (India, badminton)
Age: 26 (July 5, 1995)
BWF women’s singles, world number seven
2019: World Championships, women’s singles, gold
2018: Commonwealth Games, mixed team, gold
2018: Asian Games, women’s single, silver
2016: Olympics, women’s singles, silver
Sindhu is one of India’s gold medal hopefuls after winning silver in Rio, and, in March, reaching a career-high world ranking of two. She is the first Indian to be crowned badminton world champion when she triumphed in Basel, Switzerland in 2019.
Sindhu’s hopes of gold in Tokyo are boosted by the absence through injury of Spanish rival and defending champion Carolina Marin, who beat the Indian in the Swiss Open in March.
“I’m so happy. I was expecting this for a long time. It’s definitely a proud moment for me and for India. A lot of people have been waiting.”
Kohei Uchimura (Japan, gymnastics)
Age: 32 (Jan 3, 1989)
Men’s pommel horse, world number three
2018: World Championships, horizontal bar, silver
2016: Olympics, individual all-around, gold
2016: Olympics, team all-around, gold
2015: World Championships, individual all-around, gold
2015: World Championships, horizontal bars, gold
2012: Olympics, Individual all-around, gold
“King Kohei” has won seven Olympic medals and 10 world championship gold medals since his international debut in 2005.
The two-time men’s all-around champion has decided not to defend his all-round title but focus on winning a gold on the horizontal bar instead, as he said it was “no longer realistic” for him to perform all six disciplines because of shoulder injuries.
“The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo is not like the Olympics that I have competed in before. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It is the biggest goal of my life. I can even say that I was born for it. It almost feels like a miracle.”
Manu Bhaker (India, pistol shooting)
Age: 19 (Feb 18, 2002)
10m air pistol women, number two
25m pistol women, number three
2021: ISSF World Cup, mixed 10m air pistol, gold
2021: ISSF World Cup, 10m air pistol, silver
2019: ISSF World Cup, 10m air pistol, gold
2018: ISSF World Cup, 10m air pistol, gold
2018: Youth Olympic Games, 10m air pistol, gold
At the age of 16, Bhaker already displayed her talent in international competitions by becoming the youngest Indian shooter to win gold at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup in 2018, beating multiple World Cup gold medallist Alejandra Zavala Vázquez.
In Tokyo, she will compete in the 10m air pistol, 25m sports pistol and 10m air pistol mixed competitions.
“I have been shooting in three events at the international level for the past three years. Why would there be any pressure on me?”
“The Games postponed for a year, but then that was for everybody. I have invested a lot of mental energy into the Olympics. However, a lot changes in a year, performance and personality wise.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.