KUALA LUMPUR: With age on his side, Khairul Hafiz Jantan has plenty of time to progress towards becoming one of Asia's best sprinters.
The 19-year-old athlete will be disappointed not to gain a place on the National Sports Institute's (NSI) elite Podium Programme which was announced yesterday but it should only be a matter of time before he is challenging Asia's best.
The 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia is where Kuala Lumpur Sea Games 100m gold medallist Khairul is hoping to burst onto the continental stage, though not everyone is convinced he is ready.
In making their decision, NSI officials believe Khairul will struggle to qualify for the 100m or 200m finals at the Asian Games, let alone win a medal, thus not fulfilling the criteria to get into the Podium Programmme.
A key requirement for a place in the Podium Programme is the ability to produce medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games next year.
While the Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast is a step too far, the Malaysian Athletics Federation view the Asian Games as the place where Khairul could spring a surprise.
While Khairul set the 100m national record of 10.18 seconds in 2017, his best this year is 10.24 which he clocked at the Asian Track and Field Championships in India in July.
That ranks him 16th among runners from Asian countries, outside the top 60 of Commonwealth nations and beyond the world's top 150 sprinters in 2017.
The statistics appear to justify NSI's conclusion but former national sprinter Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan believes Khairul needs time to reach medal-winning standard.
"I'm sure NSI have their criteria in deciding who should be in their programme and they can't be seen to be making exceptions," said Jegathesan, whose 200m national record was broken by Khairul at the Malaysian Open in July after standing for 49 years.
"But what Khairul has done since the age of 18 is very commendable. He has the ability to go far but it is important that he is managed well and does the right things. People can fall by the wayside if they are not guided properly."
Jegathesan, 74, knows what it takes to win Asian Games gold medals in the sprints after winning the 100m in 1966 and the 200m in 1962 and 1966.
Rabuan Pit remains the only other Malaysian to win the Asian Games 100m gold in 1982, and if Khairul does not achieve it in Indonesia next year, the wait will extend to 40 years by the time the next edition rolls around in 2022.
Jegathesan, however, thinks that in five years, Khairul would have a better shot at winning gold when he is at his peak.
"Nobody can reach his peak at 18 or 19 and you cannot expect Khairul to do it so soon," said Jegathesan, who was only 18 when he won gold at the 1962 Asian Games though the sport has changed a lot since then.
"But in five years’ time, he is definitely capable of doing it. He has plenty of room to improve and go even faster. How fast, I can't say."
Khairul's personal best of 10.18 would have placed him fourth in the 100m final of the 2014 Incheon Asian Games and just 0.03 behind bronze medallist Kei Takase of Japan.
With luck, he may be able to mount the podium in Indonesia but many factors will come into play and if the stars align in his favour, he could prove NSI wrong next August.