Current Olympic Champion, the 6.1 ft. tall Marcel Jacobs from Italy, had a personal best of 9.95 seconds leading up to the Tokyo Olympic Games last year, and with just two sub 10-second races in his entire career he went on to win the Olympic Gold medal with a time of 9.80 seconds.
Italy-based Sri Lankan Olympian, the 6.1 ft. tall Yupun Abeykoon, became the latest sub 10-second member on Sunday night when he clocked 9.96 seconds in Switzerland, and when asked whether he could repeat what Marcel did last year, was quick to downplay any hopes.
Speaking to Ceylon Today from Switzerland before flying back to Italy, Yupun said it’s very hard to make predictions at this level.
“At this level, chances of mistakes are high, and even the slightest mistake will have grave effects; hence, it’s very hard to predict a time, especially when you become a sub 10-second runner,” said Yupun.
Very rarely someone could say that they have achieved their lifelong dream and Yupun did just that at the Resisprint International athletic meet in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, which is famous for its fast times as it is located at an altitude of 992m .
Abeykoon, 28, who holds both the 100m and 200m South Asian record, is the first South Asian and 167th athlete in history to run 100m under 10-seconds, while Sri Lanka became the 32nd country in the world to have a sub 10 second runner in the history of the 100m. He is also the first South Asian 100m runner to achieve qualification for the Olympic Games, which he did last year competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games, while he is the only South Asian 100m runner to qualify for the World Athletics Championship, a feat he achieved this year. He is now ranked 37 out of 56 athletes who are qualified by World Ranking for the championship which is set to be held from 14th of this month in Eugene, USA.
To put it in context, according to the World Bank there is a population of nearly 1.9 billion in South Asia now, which is more than 24% of the World’s population, and there’s only one athlete who has run a sub 10-second in the 100m. Also, he is the 4th fastest ever in Asia and is the fastest Asian in 2022.
“I had few targets for this year. Running sub 10 seconds was the prime one. Then winning medals at the Asian Games, running in the finals in the Commonwealth Games and semi-finals in the World Championships,” said Yupun.
Obviously with the cancellation of Asian Games due to the Covid 19 situation in China, Yupun had to divert his plans and focus on other championships this year, including the Diamond League, where he has competed in two races so far.
Prior to running sub 10 seconds, Yupun made several attempts to run a fast time and came close, but was somehow prevented from reaching his goal. He ran 10.08 into a head wind of -1.2, 10.06 into a head wind -0.2 and 10.04 with slightly forward wind of -2.3, all within the last two months, looking for that elusive sub ten seconds race.
“I tried a lot on several occasions to achieve this feat, but somehow missed it due to bad weather, windy conditions. I knew that a sub ten second run was coming and just needed conditions to come good during the race, which happened here in Switzerland,” said Abeykoon.
As Sri Lanka never had a runner who ran at this level, Yupun explained that to keep going at this stage is not cheap, as his expenses per month are usually somewhere between Rs 500,000-800,000 at today’s exchange rate, while that amount goes up during the competition season when he has to travel with his team. For example, Yupun competed in Germany on 25 May, Czech Republic on 31 May, Norway on 16 June, Sweden on 30 June and Switzerland on 3 July.
He clarified his statement – which went viral on social media – that he received little help from Sri Lanka, although he did get some assistance from Sri Lankan authorities, but those were nowhere near matching his expenses, while in 2022 he only got two months payment (Rs 100,000 each) as a member of the National Elite pool of athletes for the first two months of the year. Apart from that, he was not included in the IOC Solidarity Scholarship list, where five other Sri Lankan athletes are included.
Meanwhile, Yupun said he will compete at the Asian Games or World Championship only if his Coach and Physiotherapist are included in the team. The World Athletics Championship is less than ten days away in USA, while the Commonwealth Games is set to start on 28 July in Birmingham, UK.
Almost gave up in 2019
Before 2019, Yupun did not have a great run in the 100m. After leaving for Italy in 2015, Yupun struggled with injuries, and during 2018-19 he thought of giving up athletics. He was fortunate to meet former Olympian from Italy, Laudio Liccardello, who kept Yupun going, pushing, planning and executing with great coaching, to guide him to be one of the top sprinters in the world.
“I had hamstring problem which troubled me. Then I wasn’t producing great times. I didn’t know what exactly I should do for my treatment, and to top that I did not have an income, so I almost gave up athletics before I met coach Liccardello, who changed my fortunes,” said Yupun.
Yupun had a personal best of 10.31 in 2018 and his best time in 2019 was 10.44, where he could not qualify for the 100m individual event for the South Asian Games due to the injury he was carrying. But after working with Liccardello he immediately started producing better timings, and clocked 10.16 in 2020 to own the South Asian Record. He then renewed it with 10.15 in 2021, and then ran 10.06 followed by 9.96 in 2022.
Story so far
The 26-year-old hailing from Dankotuwa, first represented Sri Lanka at the South Asian Junior Championship in Ranchi (2013) as a triple jumper. He then gave up jumping and focused on the 100m, with little success in Sri Lanka. Yupun then got help from his family to get to a training facility in Fiammegialle Sports Centre, Rome, Italy.
In 2016, watching the Olympics on TV, Yupun promised himself that he will not just watch the next one on TV but will be part of it. His personal best at the time was 10.58 seconds, a time which was nowhere near Olympic qualification standard, but four years later he became Sri Lanka’s only male (and also entire South Asia) to actually qualify for the Olympic Games.
Earlier, Yupun trained under coach Raparelli in Italy, and in Sri Lanka he trained under coaches Subadra and Dinesh Bandara when he was studying at Pannala National College, and then under Chaminda Sampath after he changed schools for his A/L (St. Joseph Vaz College Wennappuwa), until he left for Italy in 2015.
Despite achieving the rare feat to compete in the Olympics, Yupun was so nervous he returned a time of 10.32 seconds during the Olympics, failing to advance from the heats, where he received negative press and a bashing on social media.
“Only I know the hardship I’m going through to produce these performances, and I was deeply saddened to see those remarks despite what I had already achieved by then. I expected respect for my hard work, which they totally disregarded. I knew my target all along, and I knew when I achieved that it would be a good reply for all those who disrespected,” said Yupun.
It’s evident that if Yupun stayed back in the country, he wouldn’t have achieved what he has achieved today.
“There are enough talented athletes in Sri Lanka, but they lack facilities and plans which I experience now. If they get that, they will be world beaters,” concluded Yupun.
By Anjana Kaluarachchi