“I think it’s more of a psychological thing than a physical thing,” says Su Bingtian. “Yes, I think so.”
China’s fastest man is telling me this, through a suitably slow interpreter, on route to the Athlone Indoor Arena, and the fact he’s not entirely sure about the answer is telling in another way, too. Because nothing sparks sporting debate more quickly than the question of race or ethnicity, or indeed nature versus nurture, and nowhere does that run deeper than in the men’s 100m.
There’s nothing lost in translation here: Su has been asked the question countless times already, before and after May 30th, 2015, the day he became the first Chinese man to break the 10-second barrier for the 100m, running exactly 9.99. For the world’s most populous country (1.42 billion and counting) that was a long time coming, at least compared with certain other nations.
It had been something of a race, too. Just two years earlier, Zhang Peimeng had lowered the Chinese 100m record to 10.00, but still that 10-second barrier stood firm. Typically enough, Su ran another 9.99 later in 2015, and twice clocked sub-10 in 2017, running a legal 9.98.
Last summer the race heated up again, when Xie Zhenye, four years younger than Su, ran 9.97 seconds, in Paris. Just three days later, Su took his Chinese record back, clocking 9.91 seconds in Madrid: not quite the undisputed fastest man in China, but now the only 9.91 in 1.42 billion.
“For sure,” Su says, when asked if he can run faster still. At 29 he may be close to his prime, but he’s also improving over time. He’s in Ireland for this evening’s Athlone Indoor International (live on TG4, 7.30pm), racing over 60m, where he’s among the very fastest in the world, his 6.42 seconds when winning silver at the World Indoors in Birmingham last March the equal fifth-fastest of all time (and just off Ben Johnson’s onetime world record of 6.41, before he was banned for steroids).
Slow to catch up
Still, China, and large parts of the rest of the world, has been a slow to catch up on 100m running, specifically that 10-second barrier. In the 50 years of 1968-2018, 136 men in all have broken that 10-second barrier, beginning (officially) with the 9.95 run by the American Jim Hines at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and most recently last August, when Britain’s Reece Prescod ran 9.96. Many of those 136 have run multiple sub-10s, including Jamaica’s Asafa Powell (97 in all), Usain Bolt also completing 53 wind-legal sub-10s during his career.
With very rare exceptions, they’ll all been men of west African descent. Indeed it wasn’t until 1991 when Frankie Fredericks, a Namibian, became the first non-west African to run sub-10, before in 2003, Patrick Johnson, an Indigenous Australian with Irish heritage, ran 9.93, the first man without any African ancestry to break the 10-second barrier.
In 2010 Christophe Lemaitre became the first Caucasian to run sub-10, followed in 2017 by Azerbaijani-born Turk Ramil Guliyev. Also in 2017, Yoshihide Kiryu became the first and still only Japanese man to go sub-10, with his 9.98, while India, the world’s second-most-populous country (1.35 billion), is still waiting on its first.
Su’s breakthrough came with some precedent: in 2006 Liu Xiang set a world record of 12.88 seconds in the 110m hurdles, two years after winning the Olympic gold medal – the first man to properly place Chinese sprinting on the global map.
There were other reasons, culturally, why Chinese sprinters were a little behind, some lack of proper coaching too. Born in a rural area in China’s southeastern province of Guangdong, Su came to athletics relatively late, originally carrying the bags for his senior team-mates at school. In 2004 he was selected into the sports school in the city of Zhongshan, and two years later he was promoted to the provincial team, where he met his first coach, Yuan Guoqiang, who set China’s first national record in the digital timing era, running 10.61 back in 1978 before improving to 10.52.
Su’s first breakthrough came in 2011, when he clocked 10.16 to win at the National Championships, breaking the national record of 10.17, which had stood for 13 years. In 2014 he became the first Chinese sprinter to reach the final of a global senior athletics championships, finishing fourth at the World Indoors in Sopot.
Both Su and Xie now train under American sprint coaches based in China (Randy Huntington has been working with Su since 2017), and Su has no doubt more Chinese men are ready to go sub-10, beginning with 2019. And what of a Chinese man ever touching Bolt’s world record on 9.58 seconds?
“In the future, maybe it is possible. I think so,” says Su.
That he’s not entirely sure may be telling of something else.