Long and short of it is that 100m race steals the show

Long and short of it is that 100m race steals the show
Eric Shauwn Cray of the Philippines, holding the country's flag, as he celebrates after winning the men's 100m final athletics event during the 28th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Singapore.

The fastest man of roughly 600 million South-east Asians has a Filipino mother, an American twang, a Jamaican coach and produced an uncatchable turn of speed last evening in Singapore.

Eric Shauwn Cray is a man of many wonderful geographies but all that mattered was the history he made in the 100m. He ran faster than he ever had before at 10.25sec, but more importantly he ran faster than everyone else.

It was an evening of numbers, both low and high. The stadium was only one-third full yet the crowd's volume kept climbing. When local girl Shanti Pereira won bronze in her 100m, they shook a few foundations.

Some numbers were astonishing - Cray's lead over second place was 0.2 second - and some were plain cruel. Singapore's Calvin Kang lost a bronze medal by just 0.02 of a second yet fortunately is made of superior mettle. He smiled and said, "Close, but I am very happy". At home, with 10.47, he had run his fastest. A man can do no more than his best.

On the first day of track and field, pole vaulters leapt towards the closed roof, triple jumpers hopped and 5,000m runners trotted in endless circles. Every gold won last evening had the exact same weight and yet as a spectacle the 100m, a race of concise and primitive beauty, has a gravitational pull that is irresistible.

"Fastest man" is a tag with a special swagger, whether fastest of an entire world or just of South-east Asia. Even in the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius, the word that comes first means Faster.

SSSSSHHHHHH went a sound over the pubic address system before the start, but it was not required. The 100m carries an awe which naturally quietens most crowds. At the start line grown men twitch for no race is prefaced by an equivalent tension. Perhaps because no race is as abrupt: to err here is to have little time to correct it.

Sprinters have their own aura and almost seem genetically predisposed to strut and pose. Usain Bolt is an unabashed exhibitionist and his countryman Yohan Blake, who used to eat 30 bananas a day, once neatly described himself when he said: "I feel fast."

Last evening, this tribe were not without their own style. Singapore's Amirudin Jamal wore dark glasses. Thailand's defending champion Jirapong Meenapra bowed and pointed. And Cray simply came dressed for the occasion: gold earring, gold chains and black and gold watch. Clearly he felt it was his time.

The 100m is 10 complicated seconds of polished mechanics, divided into phases of start and drive and acceleration, or as Kang says, "it's very technical".

Yet to most watchers the 100m, like yesterday, just feels like a beautiful blur, a violent outburst of raw speed where everyone is following the advice of Sam Mussabini, the legendary coach who became famous in Chariots of Fire: "Only think of two things - the gun and the tape. When you hear the one, just run like hell until you break the other."

Cray, whose other individual event at this Games is the 400m hurdles in which he is the defending champion, listened well. He had the second-fastest reaction time (0.158 of a second) and ran with a bandaged leg, a goatee and finally like the wind.

The finish was awkward because everyone else in the field, many of whom seemingly breasted the tape together, waited patiently below a giant screen for the results to be flashed. No one knew where they had finished except Cray. He had won easily and he was dancing.

But long before Cray, the fastest man of the day, was celebrated, the slowest man of the day left quietly but also coated with pride. Sopeak Phan came last in the 5,000m, more than 21/2 minutes after the winner, but was applauded to the line by the fans.

His hand extended in friendship at the mixed zone later, using his few words of English to make himself understood, this man who had come from Cambodia told a short tale of a runner who had come a long way. His personal best in the 5,000m was 17min 1sec and then yesterday he ran 16:44.38.

He won no medal, he earned no anthem, yet he was in one, significant way the equal of Cray. Both men had gone faster than they had ever gone before.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 10, 2015.
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