The Seemingly Tiny Change That Led a Chinese Runner to Olympic Breakthrough

The switch helped Su Bingtian become Asia’s fastest man.
Su bingtian sprint olympics 100m
Su Bingtian set a new Asian record at men's 100-meter semifinal on Sunday. Photo: Fu Tian/China News Service via Getty Images

Chinese sprinter Su Bingtian was already one of Asia’s fastest men when he clocked 10.06 seconds in a 100-meter race in 2013. But he wanted to be faster. 

Feeling stagnated at an age when most runners would be preparing for their retirement, Su made a risky decision: to change which foot to start his sprints with.

“I wanted to use the change to redesign my pace for the 100-meter run,” Su said in an interview with Chinese outlet The Fair. “What would be the point if I just stayed in the 10-second level?”

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In late 2014, after consulting experts, Su started kicking off his run by putting his left foot on the front of the starting block instead of his right foot. It was an extremely difficult switch. 

“It was like you were used to eating with your right hand, and now you wanted to use the left one,” he said in another interview with Tencent Sports. “You could not even pick up anything.” 

But the training eventually paid off. Su ran 9.99 seconds in a world competition in 2015. On Sunday, at the Tokyo Olympics semifinal, Su set a new Asian record of 9.83 seconds and became the first Chinese athlete to enter the men’s 100-meter final. The only other Asian man to ever make the final was Japan’s Takayoshi Yoshioka, who ran at the 1932 Olympics.

Although he finished sixth in the final, the 31-year-old has been hailed as a hero in China for refusing to give up to his older age and repeatedly pushing beyond his limits, especially in an area Chinese athletes have been relatively weak at. The runner is now dubbed “Su the Legend.” Male athletes from China have only won Olympic medals in two track sports—110-meter hurdles and the 20-kilometer race walk.

Su Bingtian Tokyo

Su Bingtian celebrates his win at the 100-meter semifinal on Sunday. Photo: An Lingjun/CHINASPORTS/VCG via Getty Images

Su was born and raised in a farming family in a small town in the southern province of Guangdong. His mother was good at running. At middle school, Su’s talent in sprinting got noticed, which landed him at a sports school and, later, the national team.

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At the London Olympics in 2012, Su ran alongside Usain Bolt in a 100-meter heat. Although he started off faster than the world-record holder, Bolt ran past him after the first 20 meters, Su said. Su realized he needed to change his strategy, even though he was seen as an old runner. 

“When I reached 28, I knew I could still run,” Su said, adding that most other runners retire at 26 to 28. “In the 100-meter races, when you reach a certain level, you would find that running is not only about the body, but more importantly about the techniques.” 

The change in starting foot helped him become the first Asian-born sprinter to finish the 100-meter race in under 10 seconds in 2015. 

Some researchers have found differences in runners’ performance in the crucial first moments after the starting beep depending on which foot they take the first step with.

Starting with the left foot on the front of the starting block—as Su now does—gives runners an advantage because it allows them to take the first step with their right foot, reflecting the left brain hemisphere’s specialization in movement execution, a 2007 study suggests. Six out of the eight runners in the Olympic final used this starting position.

Before the Tokyo Olympics, Su set his eyes on the 100-meter final and running 9.85 seconds. But Su was not sure if he could achieve this, noting that some fellow sprinters nowadays are a decade younger than him. 

“I’m already 32 [Su turns 32 later this month]. It is indeed difficult for me to clock 9.85,” he said in the documentary by The Fair filmed earlier this year. “But if I cannot do it, I hope I can train people to achieve 9.85 after my retirement.”

But Su outdid himself on Sunday with his new record. “I probably will not run 9.83 seconds ever again,” he told reporters after the semifinal. “So today will likely become the best memory of my life.”