Feature | Athletics

The Lalu Zohri effect inspiring Indonesia

Indonesian sprint sensation Lalu Zohri has caused a rise in interest and enthusiasm for track and field athletics in the Asian nation, now he's back training for the Tokyo Olympics

By Ken Browne ·

When Lalu Zohri stormed onto the sprint scene he did things no Indonesian had ever done before.

Now he's inspiring others to bring their talents to athletics too, while taking Olympic postponement in his stride.

The Zohri Effect was clear as far back August 2019 at the National Athletics Championships in Cibinong, Bogor, West Java.

A total of 50 sprinters entered, keen to pit themselves against the country's wonder-kid, who'd been making headlines since winning an historic 2018 World Athletics U20 Championships gold medal with a 100m time of 10.18 seconds.

So many runners showed up at the Pakansari stadium that organisers had to divide the sprint hopefuls into seven heats.

PASI - the Indonesian athletics authority - said the strong turnout at the nationals was "reflective of the country's efforts to produce world-class athletes," as reported the Jakarta Post.

Now, while it feels like some of the momentum may have been lost to a pandemic that has kept athletes and coaches apart, and forced the cancellation of competitions, Zohri is back in the Olympic training facility in Jakarta and ready to lift and inspire the country once more.

The fairy tale rise of Lalu Zohri

Prior to his 2018 success, Zohri couldn't afford running shoes, trained barefoot, and eventually had to borrow the money from his sister to buy a pair of spikes to compete in.

The boy from West Nusa Tenggara, a region where the Asian Development Bank says 17% of people live in poverty and half of the children suffer from stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition, was taking on the world.

Zohri wasn't just the first person from his country to win a medal at the 2018 World Athletics U20 Championships, he was the only Asian man to do so - and gold too.

His 10.18 seconds 100m sprint in Tampere, Finland, entered the history books, and then he just got better and better.

At the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships, Zohri clocked 10.13 seconds, overtaking Suryo Agung Wibowo’s previous national record (1017) to become Indonesia's fastest sprinter ever over 100 metres. He took home silver behind gold medalist Yoshihide Kiryu of Japan.

In May 2019, Zohri lined up against Justin Gatlin at the 2019 Grand Prix in Osaka, Japan, powering home in 10.03s.

That was a new Southeast Asian record, just three tenths of a second behind Gatlin's winning time, inside the Olympic qualifying time of 10.05 seconds.

Lalu Zohri had booked his ticket to Tokyo. But right when his momentum seemed greatest, and he looked certain to dip under the 10 second barrier, coronavirus put everything on pause.

The man behind Lalu Zohri

Indonesia's exciting sprint talent trains in Jakarta at the Madya Stadium, Senayan, and if there's one person who's helped him more than any other, it's coach Eni Nuraini Sumartoyo, known simply as Eni.

At 72 years of age, the regional elite trainer has given a lifetime of service to Indonesian sport. He swam at the 1962 Asian Games and was coaching and encouraging young athletes at a local level long before he became national coach in 2006.

Eni was recognised for his work by the Asian Athletics Association (AAA) at the 2019 AAA Gala Awards in Doha, Qatar, receiving the 'Best Athletic Coach for Asia 2019' award from the President of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe.

Clearly the coaching force behind the rise of Lalu Zohri, he's taken a talented kid and moulded him into a world-class athlete.

But when COVID-19 swept through Indonesia, all the athletes training under Eni were sent home out of concern that the training camp could become a petri-dish for the virus.

From March 2020, Zohri was back in West Nusa Tenggara with a program to follow to continue training and stay in shape.

But that's easier said than done.

Pinworm and other problems

Being an Olympic grade athlete is a lot of work. But not just work: it's discipline, sacrifice, and routine. Eating the right things at the right time, training on the track, training in the gym, proper rest and recovery, getting to sleep at the same time every night.

Eat, sleep, train, repeat. Years of preparation for ten seconds that can change your world.

It's much easier to stick to that way of life when you're surrounded by other athletes doing the same, pushing each other to work towards the dream, plugging in to all that collective energy.

When you go home it's a different story. The food, family, friends, it's a big challenge to create an Olympic lifestyle when you're not surrounded by other Olympians looking out for you, without a father figure like Eni Nuriani keeping close watch on you.

And some Indonesian athletes face a set of circumstances that mean they are up against it from the beginning.

Before he passed away in March 2020, former PASI chief Bob Hasan talked about Zohri's issues:

“We have doctors and nutritionists to check on the athletes," he told the Jakarta Post, "we’ve found some problems. Zohri, for example, our world champ, has had pinworms.”

“It happened because he did not wear shoes while he was back in his hometown and rarely washes his hands before eating.”

Pinworm is a type of roundworm, an intestinal parasite.

“If I eat vitamins or proteins while recovering from injury, the body doesn’t absorb them, as the worms eat them first,” Zohri told the Post.

"You forgot how to run!"

From the end of March to the beginning of August Zohri was at home, training on the beach, looking after his own nutrition.

Then on the 11th of August he was called back to the country's capital to train along with 15 other athletes and 11 coaches.

When coach Eni got back together with Zohri and the other sprinters he was shocked.

"It turns out that the programs given to the regions could not be fully implemented," Eni told Detik Sport, "so when we arrived here (the Madya Stadium) many were lacking."

"Automatically the training program has to be started all over again such as strengthening, technique. 'How come you forgot how to run?'. That's what they said when they first practiced together."

It was clear that Zohri had lost a lot of muscle mass too, which is essential in sprinters.

Zohri back on Track

But all is not lost.

Now that Zohri and the other athletes are back in Jakarta, they no longer live in PB PASI's dormitory in the Permata Hijau area of the city, they now stay at the Atlet Century Hotel, Senayan, which means there are fewer people and less contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The acting chairman of PASI, Zacky Anwar Makarim, says that nutrition is being better monitored.

"We do strict supervision as much as possible," said Zacky in a message to Detik Sport, the hotel where the athletes are staying also provides food: "meat, chicken, white rice, vermicelli, five kinds of fruit and fruit soup," athletics manager Mustara Musa confirmed.

Eni sees positive signs with strengthening improving and a routine emerging. And with Tokyo 2020 now set for 2021, Zohri saw the postponement as an opportunity, telling Republika:

“It’s okay to postpone, so I also have plenty of time to prepare.”

Zohri will now be 21 rather than 20 at the Tokyo Games, an extra year to get stronger, fitter and faster. So when might we see Indonesia's champ race again?

"It is possible that in March next year there will be more competitions," Eni tells the Jakarta Post, "there is also an Athletic Relay Championship which is scheduled for next year."

The races can't come too soon, Indonesia is ready to be inspired once more, perhaps now more than ever.