Surrounded by so many reporters, photographers and TV cameras, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, the latest sprint phenom from Japan, seemed a little uncomfortable.
“No, I didn’t think about this,” the 16-year-old said, when asked if he’d expected such a large media presence waiting for him after a practice in Tokyo on Saturday.
It was the first workout for Sani Brown since he returned from Cali, Colombia, where he dominated the track and captured a pair of gold medals in the July 15-19 IAAF World Youth Championships.
Sani Brown notched 10.28 seconds in the 100 meters and 20.34 in the 200 meters, both of which were personal bests and new meet records, in South America.
Usain Bolt had previously owned the 200 meet record, meaning Sani Brown was being mentioned in the same sentence as Jamaica’s sprint king. That’s perhaps the easiest explanation of how big his achievement was, and how quickly the world track spotlight has shone on him.
Yet it was just a beginning for Sani Brown, who was born to a Ghanian father and Japanese mother. With the 200 mark he set in Cali, he qualified through the entry standard for the world championships (20.50) and is likely to be added to the national team for the Aug. 22-30 event in Beijing. He would be the youngest sprinter ever to make Team Japan (Yoshihide Kiryu was the youngest at 17).
Sani Brown, who finished as runnerup in both the 100 and 200 in June’s national championships, said he has gained more confidence to compete against senior athletes.
“I think that I’ve earned the ability to compete with the top athletes in Japan,” Sani Brown said.
Now some hasty people perhaps expect Sani Brown to break the 10-second barrier in the 100 and 20 seconds in the 200 — both of which have never been done by a Japanese track athlete officially — in the near future.
But Sani Brown, a second-year student at Tokyo’s Josai High School, doesn’t think pursuing records is the right approach.
“You shouldn’t dwell on the 10-second barrier or things like that,” he said. “I’m not going to do that.”
Sani Brown, who has been designated as a “diamond athlete” by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, a medal prospect for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, seemed more excited that he could eventually have a chance to take on the world’s elite runners, like Bolt, the world record-holder in both the 100 and 200.
“Now that I’ve overtaken the high school (under-18) Bolt,” Sani Brown said with a smile. “I’d like to overtake the junior (under-20) Bolt.”
Sani Brown said Bolt is someone he has looked up to and is at the level he wants to reach one day.
Takahiko Yamamura, Sani Brown’s coach at Josai, doesn’t consider his protege’s world youth feat to be a fluke, and believed he had the potential to do it.
Like other youth and junior athletes, Sani Brown needs a lot of work to develop his sprinting technique going forward.
But Yamamura doesn’t actually try to teach Sani Brown much because he feels there’s no need to rush.
“I just let him practice with his natural ability,” Yamamura said. “I don’t want him to get hurt (by over-coaching). I don’t even tell him what adjustments he should make during practices. I only tell him those during actual competitions.”
Yamamura said that while Sani Brown, who stands 187 cm, is blessed with numerous physical attributes, another quality of his is that he can deliver in actual races, not just in practice.
“He’s different between practices and races,” Yamamura said. “He gets so focused for races and exceeds our expectations.”
Sani Brown actually dwells upon numbers. He has said he ultimately wants to reach the level where he can break world records.
Some might say that’s naive or that he has a big mouth. Let them laugh, says Yamamoto.
“All those Japanese athletes we’ve seen have talked about breaking 10.00 mark (the Japanese record for the 100) or running under 10 seconds, stuff like that,” Yamamura said. “But as far as I know, (Sani Brown) is the first who’s said he wants to break world records. Running under 10 seconds and 20 seconds will just be checkpoints for him.
“Others might say, ‘What are you talking about?’ But I want to support him as much as possible. He’s got so much outstanding talent, he’s qualified to say that.”
Of course, Sani Brown can’t beat Bolt and other world track stars right now. So if he does make the national team for Beijing, he’ll just go all out and full of energy like a high school athlete.
“I don’t have any particular goals (for the world championships),” said Sani Brown.
“But if I experience my first senior meet overseas, I think it’ll give me something big.”