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Asian Games: Japan rises in Asian sporting hierarchy ahead of Olympics

Japan's (from right) Ryota Yamagata, Shuhei Tada, Yoshihide Kiryu and Asuka Cambridge pose with their country's flags after winning gold in the men's 4x100-meter relay at the Asian Games in Jakarta on Aug. 30, 2018. (Kyodo)

JAKARTA (Kyodo) -- Competition at the Asian Games drew to a close on Sunday in Indonesia with China again atop the medal tally, demonstrating its ongoing sporting dominance of the region with less than two years until the 2020 Tokyo Games.

At the world's largest multisport event after the Olympics, which gathered some 11,000 athletes from across the continent, Japan improved to second on the medal table, topping close rival South Korea for the first time since 1994.

A gold rush in swimming, led by teen sensation and games "most valuable player" Rikako Ikee, as well as in judo, athletics and karate, more than made up for a surprisingly sub-par wrestling performance.

Host Indonesia easily surpassed its initial gold medal target of 16 and ended fourth on the medal table with 31 Asian titles, including 14 in the martial art of pencak silat.

Indonesia's gold medal total in the 16-day event involving 45 countries and regions and featuring 465 medal events across 40 sports was its best-ever and highest finish on the medal table since it ranked second in 1962.

The success in hosting the event in Jakarta and Palembang, the South Sumatra provincial capital, has encouraged Jakarta to investigate a bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, whose motorcycle-stunt-riding entrance to the opening ceremony went viral, is skipping the closing ceremony to remain on Lombok Island where many residents have evacuated following a series of major earthquakes since late July.

The regional festival of sports also highlighted a display of unity between North and South Korea as they competed in combined teams for the first time in basketball, rowing and canoeing, winning one gold, one silver and two bronze while putting something of an exclamation point on the recent trend of rapprochement.

Japan, which sent a record-high 762-athlete delegation, was hit early on in its Asiad campaign with a humiliating scandal that resulted in four male basketball players being expelled for buying sex in Jakarta.

Despite the scandal casting a shadow over the delegation, Japan goes home with 205 medals -- 75 gold, 56 silver and 74 bronze. The performance is significantly better than the 47 gold won at the 2014 Incheon Games and 48 in the 2010 Guangzhou Games.

Japan's 75 gold medals are its equal-second most ever, behind only the 78 it won when topping the medal table at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok and tied with the 1974 event in Tehran.

In the latest edition, including all 32 Tokyo Olympic sports, with the lone exception of surfing, China won 132 gold medals and South Korea 49. Non-Olympic disciplines such as kabaddi, sepak takraw, wushu and the card game bridge were also contested.

Japan has set a target of 30 gold medals for the Tokyo Olympics, almost double the nation's record, but did not set a medal target for the Asian Games, prioritizing its athletes' progress toward the 2020 games rather than results.

In some events, Japan showed it can match or better China's best.

In the pool, for example, Japan's 18-year-old star Ikee alone won six gold, the most ever by a female athlete at an Asian Games, and two silver, contributing to the total of 52 medals, including 19 gold, the same as China.

In badminton, Japan claimed the women's team title for the first time in 48 years by defeating China, which saw its winning streak end at five games. In fencing, Japan's women's foil team and men's epee team took victory after prevailing over the regional heavyweights.

Japan's judoka, despite not sending their top athletes, won nine gold, while four titles came in karate. One of the biggest highlights came on the athletics track when the men's 4x100-meter sprint foursome cruised to the country's first Asian Games gold in the event in 20 years.

Meanwhile, at wrestling, traditionally Japan's strongest sport, the country had an unexpectedly disastrous time, ending with just one gold, its worst performance since the 2002 Busan Games.

Aside from karate, athletes also gained valuable experience competing in high-level skateboarding and sport climbing, also sports making their debut at the Tokyo Olympics, at the same time as softball and baseball will return.

Some 135 players from 18 countries also took part in esports, or competitive video gaming, which was held as a demonstration event for the first time at the Asiad, ahead of a full medal inclusion at the 2022 Asian Games in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

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