The hero seems to mirror the spirit of the times in his home country. Lalu Muhammad Zohri, Indonesia’s amazing barefoot sprinter, has rocketed to national stardom almost overnight.

“He is like a star that appeared all of a sudden,” says Ramadani Saputra, 26, a reporter for the Jakarta Post newspaper. Zohri has gone “from zero to hero.”

Zohri, a 100-meter runner, was born and grew up in Lombok, one of the country’s approximately 13,000 islands.

He used to walk barefoot three kilometers from his home to junior high school for training, according to a local newspaper. It is not uncommon for children to walk barefoot to school in the island, where most people earn a living by fishing or farming.

Zohri wore sprint spikes for the first time after he was discovered by his coach two years ago.

One month ago, the youngster from Lombok wowed the world by winning a gold at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) world under-20 championships held in Finland.

Standing 172 centimeters tall and weighing 60 kilograms, Zohri was relatively small of stature among the competitors. But he forged ahead into the lead just 10 meters from the finish line and beat out rivals, mostly giants.

He returned home to a hero’s welcome and was invited to the president’s official residence. Besides being rewarded with a bonus of 1.5 million yen ($13,500) and a house, he was also offered jobs within the military and the government.

His humble origin and characteristic powerful spurts late in races appear to find a tremendous resonance among young people of the emerging country, whose economy is growing vigorously.

Zohri advanced to the semifinal round of the men’s 100 meters at the ongoing Asian Games in Indonesia, held on Aug. 26. (He scored a ticket to the final and finished seventh).

A very impressive moment in the opening ceremony for the 18th Asian Games came when former Olympic badminton champion Susi Susanti lit the cauldron. She became a national hero when she won the women’s singles gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the very first Olympic gold medal for the country.

Susanti, an Indonesian national of Chinese ancestry, has also become a symbol of the ethnic diversity of the nation, home to some 300 races.

A new brilliant star of the sports firmament needs to keep up strenuous efforts in order to continue sparkling.

We should probably wait for a while more to find out whether the 18-year-old sprinter will be able to fly into the top global ranks despite the heavy burden of expectations.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 26

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.