Lalu Muhammad Zohri wins the gold medal in the men's 100 meters race at the IAAF World U20 Championships at Tampere in Finland on July 11, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum/ KMSP/ Julien Crosnier
Lalu Muhammad Zohri wins the gold medal in the men's 100 meters race at the IAAF World U20 Championships at Tampere in Finland on July 11, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum/ KMSP/ Julien Crosnier

Appearing out of nowhere from the far-off Indonesian island of Lombok, new Under-20 world 100-meter sprint champion Lalu Muhammad Zohri has given the underperforming host nation a huge injection of encouragement ahead of next month’s 2018 Asian Games.

Just like the recent heartwarming rescue of Thailand’s cave boys, the feel-good story of an 18-year-old Indonesian kid from the sticks cutting down two American favorites at the July 12 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) event had one commentator referring to his performance as a “master class of sprinting.”

Sadly, while the second and third place-getters quickly wrapped themselves in America’s Stars and Stripes, Zohri walked around alone on the track at Tempere, Finland for several minutes before someone belatedly found an Indonesian flag to drape over his victorious shoulders.

Dilapidated home rebuilt

Back home in Indonesia, however, there was widespread jubilation. Newspaper headlines heralded the first Indonesian medal of any kind at the IAAF championships. President Joko Widodo ordered local authorities to rebuild the family’s dilapidated wood and plywood house in Lombok, part of the West Nusa Tenggara island chain.

Running in lane eight, the Indonesian clocked 10.18 seconds, a personal best but still some way short of the Under-20 world record of 9.97 seconds set 13 years apart by Britain’s Mark Lewis-Francis in 2001 and American Trayvon Bromell in 2014.

Bromell, the first junior sprinter to break the 10-second barrier, ran a personal best of 9.84 secs to place second at the 2016 US Olympic trials, later finishing eighth in the Rio de Janeiro Games final won by Usain Bolt, the now-retired Jamaican superstar.

This handout photograph taken and released by the Presidential Palace on July 18, 2018 shows Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (R) walking with Indonesian sprinter Lalu Muhammad Zohri (L) at the Bogor Palace in Bogor, West Java.Zohri won the men's 100 metres during the IAAF World Junior Championships in Finland on July 11. / AFP PHOTO / INDONESIAN PRESIDENTIAL PALACE / AGUS SUPARTO / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / PRESIDENTIAL PALACE / AGUS SUPARTO" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, right, walks with Indonesian sprinter Lalu Muhammad Zohri at the Bogor Palace in West Java. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Presidential Palace/Agus Suparto

Couldn’t afford shoes

Zohri, who trained barefoot in his youth because he couldn’t afford shoes, was one hundred of a second outside the Southeast Asian and national record set by the older Surya Agung Wibowo at the 2009 Southeast Asian Games in Vientiane, Laos.

The Asian record of 9.91 seconds for the 100 meters is jointly held by Nigerian-born Qatari Femi Ogunode and China’s Su Bingtian, the gold and silver medalists respectively at the previous 2014 Asian Games staged in South Korea. Bolt’s world record is 9.58 seconds.

Su is expected to compete at the Jakarta games, which begin on August 27 at the same refurbished sports complex where Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno opened the 4th Asiad in 1962 in the middle of the Cold War.

Then, there were 1,460 athletes from 17 countries. This time, 10,000 participants from 45 nations will compete in 40 sporting events shared between Jakarta and the south Sumatra capital of Palembang, where Widodo last week opened Indonesia’s first light-rail transit system.

Zohri’s stunning victory was the jolt Indonesia needed ahead of the games, even if it did have to compete with the blanket media coverage given to FIFA’s World Cup in Russia, which had held the football-mad nation spellbound for a fortnight.

Indonesia has been a consistent under-achiever at the region’s biggest sporting event. In 1962, it came a distant but commendable second behind Japan, winning 51 medals, including 11 golds. At the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, Indonesia slumped to 17th place, its second-worst showing with only 20 medals, of which only four were gold.

Until Zohri came along, Indonesia’s best effort in the 32-year history of the Under-20 championships had been eighth in a quarterfinal in 1986. “I didn’t realize there would be this reaction,” he said. “Now I’m creating history and I am very proud.”

Indonesia-Lalu Muhammad Zohri-Lombok-Family Home-Antara Photo
Lalu Muhammad Zohri, center, at his modest family home in Lombok, Indonesia. Photo: Antara Photo via Twitter/Ahmad Subaidi

Talent discovered last year

He has every reason to be in a nation which is strangely reluctant to laud individual achievement. Zohri grew up in a poor family in northern Lombok, an island of 3.3 million people next to the tourist haven of Bali. Both his parents died when he was young and he lived there with a brother and sister until his discovery as a promising athletic talent in 2017.

Invited to attend high school at the national sports training center in Jakarta, he came under the tutelage of sprint coaches Eni Martodihardjo and Kikin Ruhudin, both of whom accompanied him to Finland for what turned out to be the race of his life.

Ruhudin was impressed from the start. “He’s a good person,” Ruhudin is quoted saying in an article for the IAAF website. “He prays five times a day and has a great work ethic. He’s still studying and he is concentrating on that.”

Zohri, who lowered his best time to 10.25 seconds in February, then accompanied 12 other Indonesian athletes to a camp in Santa Barbara, California, where he was mentored by Harry Marra, coach of Olympic decathlon champion and world record-holder Ashton Eaton.

“We fixed the first three steps coming out of the blocks and changed his arm pattern,” Marra explains, stressing the importance of a sprinter using bahu and siku, shoulders and elbows. “He wrote back and recently and told me that when he’s running he is thinking ‘bahu sika, bahu sika’.”

Although he went on to win the Asian Under-20 title last month, Zohri didn’t give himself a chance leading up to Tampere. But he won his heat in 10.3 seconds and then finished second in his semi-final in 10.24 seconds. That’s why the commentator said he was “not to be dismissed” as he lined up for the final.

As luck would have it, Zohri got the best start of his short career, then unleashed his trademark strong finish that carried him ahead of Americans Anthony Schwartz and Eric Harrison, both of whom posted a time of 10.22 seconds.

Former Indonesian badminton player Susi Susanti (C) lights the torch for the Asian Games during the torch relay at the site of the Mount Bromo volcano in Probolinggo, East Java province, on July 21, 2018.Jakarta and Palembang in Sumatra will host about 11,000 athletes and 5,000 officials from 45 Asian countries for the Asian Games, which will be held from August 18 to September 2. / AFP PHOTO / JUNI KRISWANTO
Former Indonesian badminton player Susi Susanti, center, lights the torch for the Asian Games at Mount Bromo volcano in Probolinggo, East Java on July 21, 2018. Photo: AFP/Junni Kriswanto

Some of the best words of encouragement for Indonesia’s athletic future comes from coach Marra, who visited Jakarta for some workshops in 2016.

“The coaches are very willing to learn and appreciate what you tell them,” he says. “Bringing in these kids from outlying areas, giving them housing, getting them coaches, helping with their education, and allowing them to train every single day, it’s a great, great support system.”

Marra, who returns to Jakarta next month to help prepare Indonesia’s athletes for the Asiad, believes there are plenty of other diamonds to be found in remote reaches of the archipelago, where teenagers rarely get the chance to show their stuff. “There’s talent there,” he muses, “you just have to find it.”

In his early teens, Zohri was more interested in football, a sport Indonesia once excelled in, but now struggles to defeat even Asia’s minnows. When Zohri had the choice to take up sprinting, he accepted it with both hands. “I know I can propel myself further,” he says. “This is a hobby, but I like it a lot.”