KAZAN (Russia) • The absence of some of the world's best swimmers, including Michael Phelps, has added an air of uncertainty to the 16th world aquatic championships, starting in Russia tomorrow.
Taking place in Kazan from July 24 to Aug 9, the event was meant to be a full dress rehearsal for next year's Olympics in Rio but a spate of high-profile withdrawals has diluted the competition.
The highest-profile no-show is Phelps, who came out of retirement in 2014 but was subsequently banned from representing the United States at the world championships after being convicted of drink driving late last year.
Australia's James Magnussen, who won the 100m freestyle gold at the last two world championships, will also be missing.
He elected to undergo shoulder surgery, giving up his chance to be the first man to win the blue-riband sprint three times in a row.
France's Yannick Agnel, the reigning world and Olympic champion for the 200m freestyle, is also skipping the world championships because of a lung infection.
Japan's Kosuke Hagino, who has emerged as one of the major threats to Phelps in the individual medley events, withdrew this month after fracturing his elbow.
The spotlight for the men's events in Kazan is now likely to fall on South Africa's Chad le Clos and China's Sun Yang.
One of the few men to have beaten Phelps at the Olympics, le Clos will defend the 100m and 200m butterfly titles he won at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona. He is also targeting the 50m, hoping to complete a treble.
"This is the most important event outside of the Olympics, everything after this is just warm-ups," the 23-year-old said.
Sun, the undisputed king of men's long-distance swimming, has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons since he became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic swimming gold medal at London in 2012.
In 2013, he was suspended by Chinese swimming officials from engaging in commercial activities after missing training and breaching team rules.
Later that year, he was ordered to spend a week in detention after crashing a car that he had driven without a licence.
Last year, he secretly served a three-month ban after testing positive for a banned stimulant.
Chinese officials ruled that he had made an innocent mistake.
Unfazed by the extra attention, he is targeting the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m individual freestyle events, plus relays.
"When I was little, I watched Michael Phelps compete in five or six events at a world meet so I want to try it as well," he said.
American Katie Ledecky is also trying to win the same four freestyle events in Kazan.
The 18-year-old has been smashing world records at will for the last year and seems a sure bet to win the three longer races but the 200m is her toughest challenge.
Among her big rivals will be her team-mate Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals at the London Olympics as a 17-year-old.
Franklin won six gold medals at the last world championships in 2013 but has her heart set on seven this time, and at Rio as well.
The powerful US are again expected to win the lion's share of the medals with Australia and China looming as their biggest rivals.
The opening ceremony in Kazan tomorrow will be followed by a week of diving, water polo and synchronised swimming before the eight-day swimming programme starts on Aug 2.