A Japanese teenager will this weekend bid to become the first native Asian to run 100 meters under the 10-second barrier, joining an exclusive world club dominated by black sprinters.
Yoshihide Kiryu, 17, is already the joint world record holder for juniors, having this week clocked 10.01 seconds at a meet in Hiroshima, making him one of only three men under-20 to have run that fast.
The high-school student says he is confident he can shave his time to become Japan’s quickest sprinter, but has his eyes on a greater prize—taking on Usain Bolt.
“It’s like a dream. Honestly, I am surprised,” he told Japanese media after his show-stopping time in the 100-meter heats at the Mikio Oda Memorial meeting on Monday, his first race with seniors.
He won the final in 10.03, beating London Olympic semi-finalist Ryota Yamagata, 20, by one hundredth of a second.
“Having come this far, I want to become the first (Japanese) to run under 10 seconds,” he said. “If I tune up thoroughly, I can run 10.00.”
With his time at the top of this year’s senior world list, Kiryu’s next chance to beat the 10-second barrier will come on Sunday at the Seiko Golden Grand Prix, the third leg of the 15-round IAAF World Challenge series.
At Tokyo’s National Stadium, he will race against seven others, three of whom have run under 10 seconds—Americans Mike Rodgers (9.85) and Mookie Salaam (9.97) and Bahamas’ Derrick Atkins (9.91).
Kiryu’s race up the ranks of the sprinting world has been rapid. He burst onto the scene last year, twice breaking the world youth (under-18) 100-meter best—first with 10.21 in October, then with 10.19 one month later when he was 16.
But those around the precociously talented teen are keen on keeping his feet—however fleet they are—firmly on the ground.
An AFP request for a one-on-one interview with Kiryu through his school in Kyoto was turned down.
Rakunan High School’s vice principal Junichi Iwasaki said Kiryu’s parents don’t want him to be “distracted” by his new-found fame.
Kiryu’s junior world record performance on Monday brought him level-pegging with Trinidad and Tobago’s Darrel Brown, who logged 10.01 in 2003, and American Jeffery Demps, who clocked the same time at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials. Both were 18 at the time.
But dipping under 10 seconds is a tough ask.
It has been achieved by only about 80 male runners, nearly all of them of West African descent, since American Jim Hines clocked 9.95 at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
In 2003, Patrick Johnson, whose mother is an indigenous Australian and whose father is Irish, ran 9.93 to become the first runner without an African background to join the sprint elite.
In 2010, Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre became the first white European to duck under 10 seconds, clocking 9.98.
But Kiryu’s eyes are fixed on multiple world and Olympic sprint champion Bolt, whose 100-meter world record of 9.58 has stood since August 2009.
Despite the present gulf between the young Japanese talent and his hero, Kiryu can take solace from the fact that at this stage of his career, he is already faster than the younger Bolt—the Jamaican ran 10.03 when he was 21.
“I want to run alongside Bolt (at the worlds) and see how he is different from me,” said Kiryu, who stands 1.75 meters, a full 20 centimeters shorter than 26-year-old Bolt.
“I lack experience in competing on the big stage. I must gain more experience,” said the youngster.
Kiryu takes five steps a second, compared with Bolt’s 4.6-4.7. But his stride is shorter—Bolt’s step covers nearly three meters toward the finish line.
Winter training saw him working on this, with low hurdles placed at longer intervals than usual in an effort to stretch his stride. He also built up his lower body by squatting.
Hopes for the young man are high in Japan, where he is just a whisker away from the Japanese record of 10 seconds flat, set by Koji Ito in 1998. Ito’s time was the Asian record until 2007 when Nigerian-born Qatari Samuel Francis streaked over the line at 9.99 seconds.
“There is a 100% chance that the time will dip below 10 seconds this year,” said Ito, now the sprint director at the Japan Association of Athletics Federations.
Kiryu ran 10.01 only in the process of peaking for the world championships in Moscow in August, Ito told the daily Nikkan Sports. “He will get better still if he experiences the worlds.”