Little track cyclist Azizulhasni Awang heads to the Tokyo Games with the big dream of becoming the first Malaysian to win an Olympic gold medal.
He may only be five feet tall, but he’s no stranger to standing on the world stage. He proved himself best when he won the Southeast Asian country’s first Olympic medal in cycling, a bronze medal in keirin at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Now gold is firmly on his agenda in Tokyo.
Malaysian track cyclist Azizulhasni Awang (right) defeats Japanese runner Tomohiro Fukaya in the men’s sprint final at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 30, 2018 (Kyodo)
Azizulhasni, a regular at the International Cycling Union’s world rankings in sprint and keirin, says the increased experience and confidence he carries on his heavily muscled shoulders will set him apart in his fourth consecutive Olympics.
“I’m much stronger, faster and wiser than I was in the last Olympics,” he told Kyodo News in an interview via Zoom, watched by his Australian coach John Beasley.
Malaysia has accumulated seven Olympic silver and four bronze medals, including that of Azizulhasni. Eight of the country’s 11 medals have been won in the hugely popular sport of badminton, with two more in diving. Azizulhasni is an outlier.
Only one other Malaysian, Rizal Tisin, won a medal at the world track cycling championships. With seven, Azizulhasni opens the way for his nation.
The 33-year-old is nicknamed the “pocket rocket” because of his compact size and phenomenal power. He has gained 10 kilograms since the Rio Olympics, focusing on building lower body muscle mass to increase the burst and watts he can put on the pedals.
In 2017, he won his first gold medal at the world keirin championships. In the 2020 edition, he finished third in the keirin and the sprint.
With a time of 9.548 seconds in the final explosion of the 200 meters of the qualifying phase of the 2020 sprint event, he broke his personal best and the Asian record.
The 2020 Worlds in Berlin took place in February and March, just before nations around the world closed their borders when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Most major sporting events have been affected, including the Tokyo Olympics.
After a one-year postponement, the Summer Games will begin on July 23. However, with the coronavirus outbreak showing no signs of slowing down in Tokyo, uncertainty hangs over how the games will unfold.
“To be honest, I’m a little worried. I have family and kids,” said Azizulhasni, a husband with two young daughters.
“The situation is uncertain, but we still have to go. John and I have sat down and talked a lot about this. (Our) conclusion is that we will let the IOC decide. We just hope that the authorities (Tokyo Olympic) will do their thing. better to make sure participants are safe, ”he said.
The one year delay for him was a “blessing in disguise as it gave me more time and opportunities to train,” he said.
Azizulhasni and Beasley were based in Melbourne, Australia, but returned to Malaysia on June 7 for final preparations before joining the Malaysian contingent, 30 athletes competing in ten sports, which will travel to Tokyo.
After undergoing a 14-day quarantine period, Azizulhasni began training with Beasley at Malaysia’s National Velodrome in Nilai, in southern Negeri Sembilan state. They were joined by fellow track cyclist Muhammad Shah Firdaus Sahrom, 25, who is making his Olympic debut in Tokyo, running the keirin and sprinting.
The sprint event is a highly tactical affair in which two runners compete over three laps. The first two circuits, however, are a battle of the mind as each rider tries to position their bike on the steeply inclined velodrome in a way that keeps their opponent from slacking off on the last hectic lap.
Keirin was born in Japan and still thrives as one of the four sports the Japanese are legally allowed to play. He made his Olympic debut at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Having raced six laps at the Olympics, up to seven keirin runners keep pace on a power-assisted bicycle called the Derny. The springer gradually increases his speed before leaving the track, freeing the riders in a final three-lap fight for victory.
Photo taken on September 6, 2018, shows the Izu Velodrome, a site of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games for cycling in Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture. (Kyodo) == Kyodo
Keirin is Azizulhasni’s favorite event, and an article in the US cycling magazine VeloNews published during the Rio 2016 Games described what makes him one of his main supporters, although he may not have the absolute pace of some others.
The article pointed out that keirin runners need to be even more tactically savvy than sprint cyclists, as every race requires supreme position awareness with more runners scrambling for victory.
“They have to be brave because it’s a discipline that has frequent crashes and a lot of contact. And they have to be quick over 2.5 full laps, not just a little kick,” he said.
“A runner like the Malaysian Azizulhasni Awang is a perfect example. He’s a top keirin runner but he didn’t achieve the fastest times in the 200 meters. He does it with cunning and timing and a daring attitude. “, he added.
Azizulhasni, originally from a rural village in eastern Terengganu state, first experimented with mountain biking, but could only afford a second-hand courier.
At the age of 10, he was spotted by his first trainer, Rozimi Omar, who took Azizulhasni under his wing and lured him into track racing.
He remembers Rozimi taking him to his first national track race in the Malaysian capital when he was 14.
“We rode all night, seven to eight hours, from Dungun (to Terengganu) straight to the Kuala Lumpur velodrome and I had to borrow someone’s bike. I (then) beat some of the more riders. experienced, ”he said.
“People were shocked. It’s like ‘where is the kid from?'”
It caught the attention of a national cycling team coach and was included in the program of the Malaysian National Cycling Federation.
In mid-2007 he was sent to Melbourne by the federation to train under Beasley, whom she named the national track cycling coach.
“When I first saw Azizulhasni, I didn’t know how far he could go because of his stature,” Beasley said.
“But my job was to train him. He has a lot of self-confidence and can surpass himself,” he added.
Azizulhasni admitted that people tend to underestimate him because of his size.
“People assume that you have to be tall and tall to be a good cyclist,” said Azizulhasni, proud to have proven the exact opposite.
Nothing captured Azizulhasni’s steely determination better than what happened at the 2011 Track World Cup in Manchester, Britain.
He was involved in a gruesome accident during the keirin which saw an eight-inch-long sliver of wood from the track protrude from his calf. Surprisingly, he got up and still managed to finish in third place.
With such resolve, it would be a brave person who would bet against Azizulhasni, standing taller than anyone from the top step of the Izu Velodrome podium at the Tokyo Olympics in early August.