ATHLETICS used to be a crowd-puller in the SEA Games gone by.
But it suffered a slow death due to the dearth of local track and field stars.
Of late, however, the sport has been slowly but surely regaining its lustre as our athletes continue to impress both at home and abroad.
So, it is with this renewed confidence that Malaysia can expect its first gold through discus thrower Muhd Irfan Shamsuddin when the athletics programme kicks off at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil today.
The Asian silver medallist, who has a personal best of 62.55m, will be gunning for his third straight gold when the discus event starts at 3.10pm.
That’s just the appetiser.
The main event is also the last of the day – the men’s 100m final featuring our own sprint ace Khairul Hafiz Jantan.
The final is scheduled at 9.40pm.
Khairul will start as the favourite based on the fact that he has clocked the fastest time of 10.24 seconds in 100m in the region this year.
The 19-year-old Melakan, who holds the national record of 10.18, has also thrown down the challenge to his challengers, who include defending champion Eric Shauwn Cray of the Philippines and Yaspi Boby of Indonesia.
United States-based Cray clocked 10.25 en route to winning the blue riband gold in Singapore 2015 while Yaspi clocked 10.45 for the silver.
Khairul, who will be making his debut, is confident he can create history at the KL Games by becoming the youngest Malaysian sprinter to win the 100m gold.
“I’m in the best shape of my life. I dare to challenge Eric and all the other sprinters in the region to the gold because I’ve faith in my own ability.
“I want all Malaysians to pray for me and support me in tomorrow’s (today’s) race,” said Khairul, who hopes to become only the fourth sprinter from Malaysia to win the blue riband event.
Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan won it at the 1965 KL Games, followed by G. Rajalingam (1967 Bangkok) and Nazmizan Mohamed (2003 Vietnam).
National coach Mohd Poad Mohd Kassim is optimistic that Khairul can beat the more experienced sprinters in the region to the gold.
“I’m also confident that Khairul can break his own national record. Winning the 100m gold will definitely motivate him to do the same in the 200m, 4x100m and 4x400m,” said Mohd Poad.
Khairul also holds the 200m national record of 20.90, which he set at the Malaysian Open at the same venue last month.
These Games will witness the participation of two disabled athletes for the first time.
Ziyad Zolkefli (men’s shot putt) and Abdul Latif Romli (long jump) are not here to make up the numbers.
They come with pretty impressive credentials, having won golds at the World Para Athletics Championships in London last month.
Ziyad, who has a personal best of 17.29m, hopes to defy the odds by beating the able-bodied athletes to the gold.
“I beat able-bodied athletes in the Thailand Open in June and I can do it again,” said Ziyad.
A total of 45 golds are at stake and the Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF) are targeting six golds.
MAF are relying on Irfan (discus), Khairul (100m), Rayzam Shah Wan Sofian (110m hurdles), Nauraj Singh Randhawa (high jump), Muhd Hakimi Ismail (triple jump) and Grace Wong Xiu Mei (hammer) for the golds.
At the 2015 Singapore Games, Malaysia suffered its worst ever outing in athletics with just three golds.