Feature17 Jul 2015

Sani Brown could be Japan's new athletics superstar


Abdul Hakim Sani Brown at the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015 (© Getty Images)

It is perhaps with a hint of irony that Abdul Hakim Sani Brown cites sleeping as one of his favourite hobbies.

The Japanese sprinter, who blazed his way to a championship record of 10.28 to strike gold in the boys’ 100m final on the opening day of the IAAF World Youth Championships, certainly left his rivals looking comatose as a fully alert Sani Brown left his rivals for dust.

Having breezed through the morning heats of the 200m in 21.19 on Friday, the outrageously talented Tokyo schoolboy hopes to become the first athlete in 10 years to secure the World Youth Championships boys’ sprint double since Great Britain’s Harry Aikines-Aryeetey achieved the feat in Marrakech.

Few would bet against it.

Born in Fukuoka to a Japanese mother and Ghanaian father, his athletic ability is credited to his mother, Akiko, who competed in national high school championships as a sprint hurdler.

Sani Brown started his personal sporting life, like so many kids, as a football striker. However, aged 10 his path was to take a new course.

“I used to play football but mum persuaded me to focus on athletics as I’m not really good at team sports,” said the naturally shy and modest Sani Brown.

He quickly discovered a gift for running and, aged 14, the Josai High School student made a significant breakthrough, finishing second in the 200m and third in the 100m at the national school championships.

It was the moment he realised he had not only a talent but a potentially rosy future in the sport.

Working with his coach Takahiko Yamamura – a teacher at his high school – Sani Brown started to make progress.

Prodigy's progress

Last year he caught the eye, posting noteworthy bests of 10.45 and 21.09 in Japan. Still only aged 15, he finished a highly impressive 12th and 17th respectively on the 2014 world youth lists.

Training five times a week, he has continued to improve this year, running a world youth 100m lead of 10.30 in his home city of Tokyo in May and the following month setting the world’s fastest 200m time for an under-18 athlete with 20.56.

Yet the acid test of his ability came in Colombia in what was his first ever competition outside of Japan.

Exposed to genuine global competition for the first time, and dealing with a very different culture and environment, can be hugely overwhelming for some, but not Sani Brown.

In the 100m heats he announced to the world he was the boy to beat in Cali, trimming 0.01 from the championship record to run 10.30. 

In the semi-final he precisely matched this time, while easing down over the final metres, before keeping his composure in a final he was heavily favoured to win.

Making a steady rather than spectacular start, he began to edge ahead at halfway before powering clear in the latter stages to clinch victory in a time of 10.28 in the final.

“Winning helped give me 100 per cent confidence, but I’m always confident," he said. "It is a great feeling to be the best in the world and not just a national school champion."

Ominously for his rivals, he believes there is room for improvement. 

“I ran well but I made some mistakes and I know I can run better,” he adds. “My start was not too good (in the 100m). 

As the world youth leader in the 200m, the 1.87m tall sprinter will be the man to beat in the half-lap event and a golden double could be a distinct possibility.

Calm customer

Rating one of his strengths as “staying calm and not panicking before a race” and one of his weaknesses as his start, he would appear to have the world at his feet.

In future Sani Brown – a big fan of “rap and hip-hop but not Japanese music” – hopes to qualify at the Rio Olympics next year when he will be aged just 17.

Surprisingly, despite genuine excitement at his progress in his homeland, there are no Japanese media in Cali following the event. One suspects if he continues his rate of progress, that is unlikely to happen again, especially remembering how quickly his compatriot and world youth best-holder Yoshihide Kiryu has ignited interest in the past few years.

Yet his story begs one final question: if the teenager loves sleep, how many hours of shut eye does the Japanese sprinter enjoy per day?

“Oh, anywhere between 12 and 13 hours,” he adds.

For those who are familiar with the sleeping habits of teenagers, this is perhaps not such a strange occurrence. To run 10.28 for the 100m is, however, perhaps a little less common.

Steve Landells for the IAAF

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