A few years ago it was on top of the world. Now China's swimming machine seems to have run out of juice.
Japan unseated China as Asia's top power in the pool on the final day, winning the Asian Games gold medal race 15-13 after six days of bitter rivalry in 32 medal events.
The Chinese performances were inconsistent. Xiong Guoming, one of seven Chinese swimmers banned for doping after the last Games (1994) in Hiroshima, returned to claim another gold, and Chinese swimmers set seven Asian Games records.
But other top Chinese swimmers either did not turn up in Bangkok, or turned up and hardly raced after falling victim to stomach upsets or fevers. Double world champion Chen Yan, for example, will leave Bangkok with only a silver and a bronze.
The last race in the final session summed it up-Japanese freestyler Masato Hirano managed to lap China's Chuan Wang on his way to gold in the 1,500 metres race.
The Japanese swimmers can hardly be faulted for their performance, however, and the single-minded way they pursued their "highest goal"-to reclaim the title of Asia's top dog in swimming. And every night their game plan was the same.
"We had a slogan for the Games and it was: ‘Beat China!'" said freestyle sprinter Shunsuke Ito, who won three gold medals and became the pin-up of the pool with his twin brother Shusuke.
China first took the lead from Japan in the Beijing Games of 1990, and dominated the swimming in Hiroshima in 1994 with 23 gold medals from 31 events. But nine of them were taken away after Xiong and six others failed drug tests, casting China's performances into doubt. More drug busts followed, most notably at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, when four Chinese swimmers failed drugs tests and another had human growth hormones found in her baggage.
The slide had already started. Whereas Chinese women won 12 of the 16 golds at the 1994 World Championships, in Perth they won only 3. In Bangkok, they managed 7.
There were a number of fine performances over the week as China and Japan slugged it out, although no world records were threatened. The Ito twins stole the show with a family one-two in the men's 100 freestyle, despite Shusuke trailing in last place at the turn. Takahashi Yamamoto grabbed two individual gold medals in the 100 and 200 metres butterfly, smashing the Games record by 3.5 seconds at the longer distance.
But the noisiest win in the brand new Thammasat swimming centre was for Torlarp Sethsothorn, who took Thailand's first swimming gold of the Games when he upset Hirano in the men's 400 freestyle.
South Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan also won one gold apiece. Hirano turned the tables in the 1,500 race, surging ahead of the Thai at the half-way mark and touching home almost 20 seconds ahead as Torlarp earned silver. Chinese racer Chuan came home a minute after that.
Hirano said he thought Chinese swimmers had not prepared well enough for Bangkok. Team official Shigeo Ogata agreed that China would not take the defeat lying down.
"China will be coming back soon," Ogata said.