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China's Su Bingtian celebrates after winning his 100 meter semifinal on Sunday.
China’s Su Bingtian celebrates after winning his 100 meter semifinal on Sunday. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Chinese sprinter Su Bingtian made Olympic history Sunday night, becoming the first Asian athlete to line up in the men’s 100 meter final since Takayoshi Yoshioka in the 1932 Los Angeles Games.

The 31-year-old arrived in Tokyo as a rank outsider, having previously been eliminated twice at the semifinal stage in London and Rio.

But in an extraordinary night of high drama, which saw American medal favorite Trayvon Bromell fail to qualify for the final, Su appeared to defy all expectations, scorching across the finish line of the third semifinal in first place — and setting a new Asian record of 9.83 seconds.

The time — the fastest of all semifinalists — positioned 5 ft 8 in (173 cm) Su as an unlikely favorite heading into the Tokyo 2020 final. On the night though, it wasn’t to be for him. Su finished sixth, clocking in at 9.98 seconds, with Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs taking gold in 9.80 seconds.

On Weibo, China’s heavily-censored Twitter-like platform, five of Sunday night’s top 10 trending topics referenced Su’s sprint final, amid an outpouring of pride for his record-breaking achievement.

“Su Bingtian, you’re a miracle of the entire Asia! The pride of all of Asia!” said a top comment with nearly 300,000 likes.

After the race, Su told Chinese state media that stepping on the track had fulfilled his Olympic dream.

“I ran out of my energy in the semifinal. Finishing the final under 10 seconds is not an easy thing for me,” he added.

Indeed, Su was the first Asian-born athlete to officially break the 10-second barrier, the traditional measure of a truly world-class sprinter. Only a select group of Asian athletes have since achieved the feat.

USA's Ronnie Baker, Italy's Lamont Jacobs and China's Su Bingtian compete in a 100 meter semifinal heat on Sunday, August 1.
USA’s Ronnie Baker, Italy’s Lamont Jacobs and China’s Su Bingtian compete in a 100 meter semifinal heat on Sunday, August 1. (Morry Gash/AP)

By way of comparison, Su’s semi-final time of 9.83 seconds would have been enough to win Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992 (9.96 seconds, Linford Christie); Sydney, 2000 (9.87 seconds, Maurice Greene); and Athens, 2004 (9.85 seconds, Justin Gatlin). Usain Bolt holds the fastest ever 100 meter time with 9.58 seconds at the World Championships in 2009. Bolt also holds the Olympic record with 9.63 seconds at London 2012.

Editor’s note: A version of this story appears in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.


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