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Sani Brown sprints to head of class

by Shintaro Kano

Kyodo

The 10-second barrier has been unbreakable for Japanese sprinters in the 100 meters, Koji Ito coming the closest in 1998 when he ran it in 10 seconds flat.

But Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, the 18-year-old half-Ghanaian prodigy, is giving Japan hope the wall may finally come down after completing the 100-200 double at the national athletics championships on Sunday, the first sprinter to accomplish the feat since Shingo Suetsugu in 2003.

Sani Brown rewrote his personal best in both the 100 and 200, his time of 10.05 in the 100 the sixth fastest ever by a Japanese. He did it while beating all four members of the nationally heralded Rio Olympic silver medal-winning 4×100 medley relay team — Ryota Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu and Aska Cambridge.

Sani Brown will make his second appearance at the world championships in London in August, when all eyes in Japan will be on him to see how much he has gained on the likes of Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin.

The nationals were a confirmation of Sani Brown’s touted potential, and have quickly shot him to Tokyo Olympic-bound stardom alongside fellow teenagers such as Takefusa Kubo in soccer and Rikako Ikee in swimming.

While he missed Rio last year due to injury, Sani Brown broke Bolt’s record in the 100 and 200 at the 2015 world youth championships. The double there earned him the IAAF Rising Star award.

None of the early success seems to be going to Sani Brown’s head, however. What was on his mind after being named the top male athlete of the nationals on Sunday evening was — supper.

“I’ll crash for a few days and eat some good food and recover,” Sani Brown said with a big smile, salivating over his options in the Japanese carbs-capital that Osaka is known for being. “Then I’ll go back to the Netherlands and work hard again.

“I’m very happy about being No. 1 in Japan, but I don’t want to settle for this. I want to do well at the world championships and other competitions I’ve got ahead of me.”

He drew singular praise from his fellow competitors at the nationals who struggled to keep up with the 188-cm speedster.

“He’s so big I thought I was competing at the world championships,” said Iizuka, who was the defending 200 champion at the nationals and will compete against Sani Brown in the discipline in London. “Not too many Japanese are bigger than me in athletics, but he’s massive.

“I think what he’s doing is great. We went to Rio and achieved what we achieved, and it probably spurred Hakim on. So now we have to feed off him and try to do better.”

Sani Brown has taken his training base abroad, and is set to enroll this fall at the University of Florida, one of the top sports colleges in the United States. He credits his improvement from last season to the coaching he has received overseas.

“I think there’s a difference in the way coaches work in Japan and the way the top coaches in the world work,” Sani Brown said. “I’ve done a lot of weight training which has strengthened my core, and that’s stabilized my upper body when I run.”

Japan’s 100 record-holder Ito, now the head of development at the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, said the wunderkind has a feel for sprinting that only the great ones have.

“For someone his age, he knows how to take it up a notch with each round in a competition,” Ito said. “It’s a good sign because he’s been a junior champion, but to do it at the senior level, he will need to put up fast times comfortably.

“Like Carl Lewis or Bolt, he has the ability to rein it in until 60 or 70 meters before letting it all go, and that is a quality not everyone has. The four who won a medal in Rio have talent, but so does Hakim, who beat them all.”

Yet Sani Brown’s most admirable quality might be his temperament, the easy-going way he carries himself in a country where athletes tend to be overhyped at a young age, and can be forgotten quickly and ruthlessly without instant results.

“It’s understandable for people to get nervous or worked up wanting to win, but I think the most important thing is to enjoy the race, have fun competing,” he said. “As long as you don’t forget that part, I don’t think you can become nervous.

“It feels great to run fast, and the more competitive it gets, the better for me.”