By Shehan Daniel reporting from Tokyo, Japan
At the 30-metre mark of his 100m heat on Saturday, you could sense that Yupun Abeykoon’s Olympic debut was probably not going to go as planned.
A bad start, despite a quick reaction to the starting gun, found Abeykoon lingering at the back of the pack, a position he would not be able to make up over the rest of the race.
He tried, moving up one place as he drove to the finish, but a combination of the sheer pace of the leaders and his own mistake meant that Abeykoon could not put in the performance that he, and those who have been following his meteoric rise, would have expected.
Abeykoon spoke, in the lead up to the Olympics, about those expectations that have been placed on him, being the first Sri Lankan in 25 years to run in the Men’s 100m at the Olympics.
He had, after all, bettered the national 100m record thrice in the last 12 months.
But he also said he was realistic in his expectations – a personal best more attainable than a medal; qualification to a semi-final more achievable than running in today’s final.
Ultimately, he was two-tenths of a second slower than the national record which he currently holds, good only for a sixth-place finish in his heat and not good enough to earn him a place in yesterday’s semi-finals.
“I was ready to do something great today, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that,” Abeykoon said after the race. “I’m really disappointed about the time I ran. I didn’t come here to run that kind of time. I was confident in how I set up my blocks and how it felt.”
Abeykoon could not put his finger on what exactly his mistake was, but he was keen to find and fix it.
“I’m disappointed because in a nine-second race like this, if you make a mistake it is difficult to fix. A lot of people back in Sri Lanka were expecting me to do something good. It’s difficult to win a medal here, but I wanted to better my own time. I can’t say what went wrong, but I made a mistake over the first 30 metres and that was the reason for this result. I will talk to my coach, rewatch the race and see where I can improve,” Abeykoon said in his immediate assessment of the race. For his coach, former Italian 400m sprinter Claudio Licciardello, the underwhelming run in Tokyo is all part of Abeykoon’s journey to becoming a world-class athlete.
“It’s part of the journey. When you get to the top level, and you don’t have enough race in the legs and the experience on the big stage, it is so tough to try to get the best. For the future I am sure it will be easier to compete in the top level, and we shouldn’t forget that in January we were with zero points of rankings,” Licciardello said. He commended the work that Abeykoon did ahead of the Olympics, sealing a direct qualification spot for the Olympics in just six months.
“He did very hard work out to get to the Olympic, so it was not simple. After one year of workout he goes and competes in the indoor season, he was in top shape in June, it is not so easy to maintain that kind of shape until August. Some tension is part of the growing up of an athlete. I’m sure he will do his best for the next events and in the next year. There are a lot of challenges for us, so we’ll be good,” Licciardello added.
At 26, Abeykoon’s window of opportunity is fast closing, and the three years between now and Paris 2024 will be crucial for the Italy-based athlete.
In between he’ll have the World Athletics Championships, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, events where he could leave a mark that no other Sri Lankan has left before.
And if the past is anything to go by, the future looks bright for Abeykoon, even if the present carries a sense of disappointment.