Lalu Muhammad Zohri in the 100m at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018 (© Roger Sedres)
It was 10 seconds that shook up the world of sprinting – 10.18 seconds, to be precise, the amount of time it took Lalu Muhammad Zohri to stun the superpowers and grab 100m gold at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018.
In the 32-year history of this event, Indonesia’s best ever result was an eighth-place finish in a quarter-final back in 1986, but things have changed since then, changed utterly.
In recent days the nation’s president, Joko Widodo, offered his congratulations to Zohri and ordered cabinet ministers to arrange that their sporting hero's house be renovated, while for Zohri himself, the hours since the final have passed in a haze of beautiful bewilderment.
“I didn’t realise the reaction, but this is amazing,” he said. “Now I am crafting history and I’m very proud.”
For a kid from a poor background, one who grew up in a small house made of wood and woven bamboo, who a couple of years ago had to ask his older sister for a loan to buy running shoes, this was an extraordinary achievement.
But it was far from a fluke, because for quite a while Zohri’s talent has been blossoming under the guidance of two high-calibre Indonesian coaches and one international consultant who, it’s fair to say, knows a thing or two about creating champions.
The road to Gold
Zohri grew up on Lombok Island, an area in the southwest of Indonesia of about three million people. With both his parents deceased, he lived there with his older brother and sister until early 2017, at which point his talent was spotted and he was invited to attend a high school that specialises in sport at the national training centre in Jakarta.
There, he came under the guidance of coaches Eni Martodihardjo, the head sprints coach in Indonesia, and Kikin Ruhudin, the assistant sprints coach who travelled to Tampere with Zohri.
“He came to the national team he was already good enough, running 10.38,” says Ruhudin.
“He’s a very good person,” he adds. “He’s very religious, he prays five times a day and he has a great work ethic. He’s still studying so he’s concentrating on that. Many officials offered him to join the army but he says he wants to focus on this, on athletics.”
By doing that, he brought himself into contact last year with one of the world’s best-known coaches, Harry Marra, who guided the careers of combined event stars Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton.
The link between Marra and Indonesian athletes was first forged in November 2016, when Marra attended the IAAF Athletics Awards in Monaco and, over a drink with officials from their federation, was invited to Indonesia to run some coaching workshops.
Since then the US coach has traversed the globe four times, spending about a month there on each occasion.
“They are great people,” says Marra. “The coaches are very, very willing to learn, appreciative of what you tell them.
“What Indonesia is doing with their federation is bringing these kids in from outlying areas, giving them housing, getting them event coaches, help with their education and they train every single day. It’s a great, great support system.”
It’s a system that elevated Zohri to a new level this year, lowering his personal best to 10.25 back in February at the age of 17 before going on to take the Asian U20 title last month.
In April 13 Indonesian athletes and several coaches went to the US for a month-long training camp in Santa Barbara, California. Marra had acted as an advisor for Zohri’s coaches for the previous year, and on that training camp the emphasis remained the same: his start.
"I was training technical details with Harry," Zohri said, who clocked impressive 10.36 and 10.33 performances in his two races during his month-long stay in California.
“We fixed the first three steps coming out of the blocks, changed his arm pattern and it puts him into a better position,” says Marra. “He adapted to it well.”
Before returning home, Marra left Zohri with two simple cues to focus on both in training and races to improve his arm mechanics and positioning: bahu and siku.
“Bahu means shoulders and siku means elbows,” says Marra. “I gave him those before I left, and he wrote back recently saying that when he’s running, that’s what he thinks now: bahu-siku, bahu-siku.”
Heading to Tampere, everyone was hopeful Zohri could improve his personal best, although few envisioned he could truly defeat the world’s fastest teenagers.
“He was well down the rankings so I didn’t expect he could become a champion,” says Ruhudin.
In the heats, he won in 10.30. The following evening, the world started to sit up and take notice as he finished second in his semi-final in an Indonesian U20 record of 10.24.
But in the final, all eyes remained locked on the central lanes but out in lane eight, Zohri quietly nailed one of the best starts of his career to stay in contention, to allow himself to unleash that trademark, terrific finish. It carried him to gold in 10.18 ahead of US athletes Anthony Schwartz and Eric Harrison.
Back in his early teens, when Zohri was more interested in football, he could never have imagined where this sporting journey would end up, but for him the choice to jettison that for sprinting was an easy one.
“In athletics I can propel myself further,” he says. “This is my hobby, but I like it very much.”
His win sparked wild celebrations at home, but perhaps more importantly, it will likely now ignite inspiration among the youth that Indonesians can compete – and defeat – the world’s best.
“He can break the national record of 10.17 and he can go under 10.10 soon,” says Ruhudin. “Currently in the national team there are 100 young athletes but there are five with very good potential who can become world-class.”
On Wednesday, Zohri’s friends and family crowded around a tablet in his village to watch the live stream of his race, while 8000 miles away, Marra was also tuning in at his home in California.
“I definitely anticipated if the conditions were good he could run that fast,” says Marra. “But at 18 years old, to go to a big meet like that, you don’t know what’s going to happen. He can run faster, though, no question.”
Marra will return to Indonesia in August to work alongside Zohri’s coaches ahead of the Asian Games (August 18-September 2) which take place in Jakarta, and from what he sees of the nation’s athletes, he believes this will be the first of many successes.
“There’s talent there, you just have to find it,” he says. “I love working with them because athletes and coaches are open to learn and listen, and that’s important. They don’t have preconceived notions. The work ethic of the Indonesian people is tremendous and sometimes, if anything, you have to pull back a little.
“But with all those things combined together, down the road they can be a force.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF