Neeraj Chopra broke barriers and inspired a generation when he became the first Indian athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics. A neighbouring Sri Lankan, 100m sprinter Yupun Abeykoon noticed the impact Chopra had and wanted to replicate it as well. “When Neeraj won the Olympic medal, he became a role model in India. I want kids to be inspired by me as well,” he had told  Sportstar  a few weeks ago.

On Sunday, Abeykoon might have done just that when he breached the 10-second barrier in the 100m.

The 10-second barrier in the 100m is one of the gold standards of the sport. Just 169 men in the history of the sport have ever breached that mark. To give some perspective, more than three times as many people have been to space. Athletes from just 32 countries belong to this most exclusive of clubs. And even among them, it’s no secret that athletes of African origin dominate. Until Sunday, in that list of sub 100m runners, there were just nine athletes not of African descent.

Now you can add a South Asian to that list too. On Sunday in Switzerland, 27-year-old Sri Lankan Olympic sprinter Yupun Abeykoon clocked a time of 9.96 seconds at the Resisprint international meet to become the first man from the region to break the 10-second barrier.

For the most part, it had been assumed that South Asians just weren’t very good at the men’s 100m. Indeed until 2020, the record for athletes in this region was 10.22 seconds – which would be the 185th fastest in the world for just this season (the fastest Indian time is even slower at 10.26 seconds).

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Sri Lanka though had the most success. They even had a genuine world-class athlete in Susanthika Jayasinghe, who won Olympic bronze (later upgraded to silver) and two medals at the world championships.

It was Jayasinghe’s performances, that encouraged Abeykoon, who grew up in the Western Sri Lankan city of Negombo, to first start athletics. “I started my career in 2004 when my teachers picked me to compete at a school meet. At that time, there was a lot of demand for athletics because we had won medals at the world level. As a result, it gave me good motivation to run,” he says.

By the time he started his sport seriously in 2012, that stream of talent had seemingly dried up. “Once I started seriously, there wasn’t anyone at a good level. As a result, I had to be inspired by athletes from outside Sri Lanka,” he says.

Abeykoon was a promising athlete but not exceptional. In 2013 he took fourth place in the men’s triple jump competition at the Junior South Asian Championships in Ranchi. While he was a good jumper, his speed on the runway is what excited his coaches, and he took to the sprints soon after.

Early on, there weren’t any stand-out results in that event either – he clocked a time of 10.83 seconds to take sixth place – in his first Sri Lankan championships. His performances would only start improving once he started training in Italy in the same year on a scholarship program. “When I first came to Italy, my personal best was 10.83 seconds. It took me seven years to improve my best and get to where I am. I changed my coach in 2020. It was only then that I started breaking the results,” he says.

Abeykoon is currently working with Italian and former 400m Olympian Claudio Licciardello at the GS Fiamme Gialle Sports Centre, where three of the four Italians who won gold in the 4x100m relay at the Tokyo Olympics train. Training and competing with Olympic champions gave Abeykoon the confidence to step up himself. “I’ve competed and trained with some of the top athletes. I've competed with (Olympic champion) Lamont Jacobs and did a (then) personal best of 10.04 while running with him. When I am with them on the starting line, I feel like I’m one of the best in the world as well. It always gives me the feeling that I need to push myself hard too,” he says.

Coach Licciardello is full of praise for Abeykoon. “He’s fast! One of the best I have seen in terms of on-the-fly speed. He’s outstanding. I haven’t seen his level in a lot of athletes,” Licciardello told Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times last year after Abeykoon qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.

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While Abeykoon became the first South Asian athlete in 32 years to qualify for the men’s 100m at the Olympics, he wasn’t done just yet. While he was aware that athletes from the region had no history of success in the men’s sprint, he didn’t view it as a limiting factor. “If we compare South Asian timings with that of world-class athletes then yes, of course, we weren’t in front. But that’s not something that will always be the case. In the past, there were no sprinters from China or East Africa. But now they (Kenya’s Ferdinand Omanyala) have a sprinter who did 9.77 seconds. You always need someone to push and break that barrier,” he says.

Abeykoon had been coming close to breaking that barrier in the last couple of years. He had clocked 10.16 to break the South Asian record in 2020 after running a wind-assisted time of 10.09 earlier. This year he clocked a wind-assisted time of 10.04 and later improved the South Asian record with a legal time of 10.06 at the Anhalt 2022 meet in Germany.

It’s those performances that saw Abeykoon start changing perceptions. “At first not many people believed I could be a good sprinter. But as I started getting close to the 10-second mark and when I did the 10.06 race, more people started believing,” he says.

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"I've competed with (Olympic champion) Lamont Jacobs and did a (then) personal best of 10.04 while running with him," says Abeykoon.

 

Now though having finally broken the 10-second barrier, he doesn’t need to convince anyone.

Abeykoon expects other athletes from the subcontinent and even India to come through. “I don’t think you can say that India doesn’t have any good runners. India has a lot of strong athletes in the 400m. So we can’t say that they are weak. Even if we compare them to the world level, they are at a good level. All it needs is one person to break through,” he says.

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Abeykoon made a few friends with Indian athletes during his time at the Junior South Asian Games in Ranchi, and he still keeps track of how Indian athletes are doing when they compete abroad. “I think there are many good athletes in India. In the last 3-4 years they have become very good. Neeraj Chopra was of course the first South Asian to win Olympic gold. You also have some very good coaches from foreign countries. Your athletes get a lot of support as well. I know in the future you will get world-class athletes in other events too,” he says.

There’s a hint of sadness when Abeykoon speaks about the support athletes in India get compared to him. While Abeykoon has been breaking records he’s been doing so with one eye on what’s going back at home where Sri Lanka has been dealing with a crippling financial crisis. “It was not easy to leave Sri Lanka to come and train in Italy. I’m not from a well-off family. Sometimes the Sri Lankan sports ministry supports me, but for the most part, I have to use my family’s money. My father had a job in Italy working in a holiday Villa. That is what pays my bills,” he says.

Although he holds a job in the Sri Lankan Army, the current financial situation back home means that support is meagre. “I have a job in the Army, and I draw a salary from there. But when you compare our currency with Europe it’s very low. Because we are in an economic crisis, a year’s salary is enough to pay for just one month of training. It’s getting steadily harder,” he says.

However, Abeykoon says he avoids thinking about any of his challenges. “I try to avoid taking any pressure. I can’t think that my father is working so hard for me, so I have to push myself. My mind will go crazy if I do that. I understand the situation I’m in, and I just want to put all my focus on training well. Right now my country is suffering a lot and I hope I can help inspire them,” he says.

It isn’t just his countrymen that Abeykoon believes he can inspire. “My goal isn't to win a medal at the Olympics because I know just how hard that is. The only thing I think of before every race is how I can get better than the last time. That way I can keep improving. Right now, there are only nine athletes from all of Asia (and only seven of non-African) who have done this (run a sub 10second 100m). So if I break this barrier, it will be a great motivation for other athletes from South Asia. Right now I know that Neeraj Chopra is a role model in India, and children dream of breaking his record. I also hope that some kids break my record too,” he says.