Dirt-Poor Indonesian Sprinter Strikes Gold, Wins Nation’s Heart

Ahmad Syamsudin
180713-ID-runner-620.jpg Lalu Muhammad Zohri of Indonesia celebrates his victory in the men’s 100 meters during the IAAF World Junior Championships in Tampere, Finland, July 11, 2018.

An Indonesian runner who could barely afford shoes and lived in a shanty fired up celebrations on Friday after he bagged the world junior sprint crown in Finland, in an unprecedented victory that captured his countrymen's emotions.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said Lalu Muhammad Zohri, 18, made the nation proud by becoming the first Indonesian to win a medal from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport’s governing body.

“I have ordered the minister of Public Works to come to Lombok to rebuild his house,” Widodo told reporters in Jakarta, referring to the eastern island in West Nusa Tenggara, the athlete’s home province.

Zohri outpaced heavily favored U.S. sprinter Anthony Schwartz to win the gold medal at the IAAF World Under-20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, on Wednesday. Zohri claimed the 100-meter title in 10.18 seconds, his personal best, while Schartz and another American sprinter, Eric Harrison, finished in 10.22 seconds.

News of the historic victory went viral on social media, transforming Zohri from a little-known athlete into an overnight sensation.

Stories about Zohri’s impoverished upbringing surfaced hours after the victory, as local media published photos of his house, mostly made of old wood and bamboo.

Zohri is reserved and is never demanding, Zohri's older sister, Baiq Fazila, told reporters.

“He loves running and playing football, but he didn’t wear shoes because he didn’t have any,” Fazila told a local television.

Both of Zohri’s parents are dead, but CNN-Indonesia showed his relatives cheering, some with tears in their eyes, as they watched a YouTube video showing him battling for the finish line in Finland.

Last year, Fazila said, Zohri asked her for 400,000 rupiah (U.S. $28) to buy a pair of shoes before leaving for Jakarta for the overseas competition.

“I could only give him what little I had. I’m very proud of him,” she told Kompas.com.

“It has been his dream to make his family happy and build a house,” said Fazila, who works at a hotel.

In a video posted on Twitter, Zohri thanked Indonesians for their support. Earlier this year, he also won gold at the Asian junior athletics in Japan with a time of 10.27 seconds.

Before Zohri’s triumph, the best performance by an Indonesian athlete at the IAAF was an eighth-place finish in 1986, the federation said.

Not resting on his laurels, Zohri is preparing for the Asian Games, a multi-sport event scheduled to open on Aug. 18 in Jakarta and Palembang, capital city of South Sumatra province.

“I'm so proud – this was an amazing experience and this is great for my career,” he said after winning gold in Finland, according to the federation’s website.


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