Sporting Life: Su Bingtian gives planet a taste of Asian speed

TOKYO – So cool this Su Bingtian is. So fast this teacher runs in the semi-finals. So crazy it is to feel, at least for a brilliant, beautiful while, that a 100m Olympic champion, or medallist, can come from Asia. Who cares that he comes sixth in the final, he makes us believe.

What, you weren’t on your feet?

Eighty-nine years ago in Los Angeles, Takayoshi Yoshioka from Japan takes the lead in the 100m Olympic final. For 40m he is ahead and then he is caught. Su is never ahead in the final but he had already caught our attention.

Twenty-four runners compete in the three 100m semis and Su, a blur in red, is the fastest in 9.83 seconds. He roars, so must have Asia. “I think I was one of the fastest off the blocks,” he says later of the semis, “and I just went all in.”

In the mixed zone much later, speaking in Cantonese and Mandarin, he admits his tank after the semis was dry. The final came after roughly 140 minutes and it was too soon. “I was definitely spent because the recovery time was so short. But to still be able to break the 10-second barrier, I’m very happy because I met my goal.” Progress is made in fractions.

Sunday night is rich with history as an Italian wins a first gold for his nation in the high jump and leaps into the arms of his Qatari co-winner. Yulimar Rojas, a long-legged leaper, breaks the world record in the triple jump to become the first Venezuelan woman to win gold. It’s an evening that deserves standing ovations which never happen.

This is why sport is refreshing, precisely because it offers enough of something new. There are always repeat champions yet also just enough room for the unlikely story to be told. And Su at least writes the draft of one.

Across Asia kids are watching and their TVs are telling them fantastic tales. The Masters bends to Hideki Matsuyama’s iron play and Sun Yiwen, whose father is fighting for his life in Beijing, is the first from her nation to win the women’s epee gold in Tokyo.

Every Asian athlete sparks the next. As Su says later: “I do keep in touch with Liu Xiang (the first Chinese to win track gold in the 110m hurdles in 2004). He is a trailblazer. If not for him, maybe many Asians would not have dared to dream of making an Olympic final and winning a medal.”

Geography doesn’t necessarily decide medals any more and there is no law which says the US rules swimming and Asians should stick to table tennis. No one owns a sport. Modern athletes don’t listen to ancient stereotypes but to the strong voices in their head. China breaks a world record in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay and Su is in contention for a crown that Bolt guy used to own.

Cool, no?

Su, who clocks 9.98 in the final, has a nice swagger but is candid about his talent. “I surprised myself. Maybe I can never reach this time again.” But he adds: “I hope my sixth-placed finish can inspire younger athletes that more of them can break 10 seconds.”

A 100m heat was the first race of the first Olympics and 20 nations have won medals since but no one has ever mentioned Asia. Su has altered that conversation.

On a sweet Sunday night there was no medal. But the idea of it no longer feels absurd.

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