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The Observer

The fastest woman Britain has ever seen is also thoughtful, inspirational and willing to talk about things that athletes often avoid, like politics and periods. But in the countdown to the Tokyo Olympics, sprinter Dina Asher-Smith knows that every second counts
Tom Lamont
Sun 25 Jul 2021 07.00 BST

Around 9am local time, this coming Friday, Dina Asher-Smith will crouch on a starting line in Tokyo, ready for her first race of the Olympic Games. Nose this close to the ground, hugger-mugger with the other athletes, the moment will smell to her of skin cream and sweat, also the rubber of the track, a smell that might remind you or me of a playground’s springy surface, but which always makes Asher-Smith think of home. She has been a competitive sprinter since primary school. She started medalling in major 100m and 200m races about the time she was old enough to drive. Now, at 25, she is one of the fastest two or three women alive, and surely Britain’s best hope for athletics gold this summer.

On Friday morning, she’ll try to rid her mind of any such expectations. Crouched on the track she’ll place herself in an imaginary bubble, ignoring smells, impressions, sounds, even ready to ignore the echoing pop of the starter’s pistol. Wastes time, Asher-Smith has learned, listening for that. Better to try to feel the gun go and in the very same instant go herself. Ballerina focus will be required, next, to recreate a precise pattern of initial steps that she’ll have planned in advance with her coach. That ought to be the end of any conscious effort on her part. Over the next eight or nine seconds in a 100m race, or the next 20-something seconds in a 200m race, she says: “I shouldn’t really know what the sensations are. I shouldn’t be in a place to be reflective at all. I shouldn’t be feeling, only doing.”

Well, Asher-Smith concludes, throwing up her hands – that’s the idea. Everything written above is perfect-world stuff. While she talks through it, painting a detailed picture of her ideal racing routine, Asher-Smith is cross-legged on her couch at home, still with a bit of time to go before she boards a plane to Japan. She drinks coffee from a mug, threatening spills to a pale zip-up sweater whenever she gestures with her arms or leans back to laugh at the ceiling.

Maybe it’s the comfort of chatting from her own flat, or the buzz of the caffeine, but Asher-Smith can discuss the coming Olympics with a level of coolness and political candour that’s rare in athletes as they creep towards a competition that will in one way or another define their lives. Experience has taught her that any funny obstacle might yet rear its head, some wrinkle or overlooked detail.

She talks about warming up before a race in Monaco, some years ago, and hearing the judge say a few words in French that were unfamiliar to her. “And then the gun went off and I was, like, ‘Urgh.’” (Turned out those unfamiliar words were her instructions to get ready and get set.) Nothing can be taken for granted, Asher-Smith explains, “because there are always going to be uncontrollables, things that might pop up, things you’ve just got to keep rolling with. At the end of the day, these races are on arbitrary dates and at 9.01am or whatever, the gun goes whether you’re ready or not.”

There’s a basket behind her that she’s been slowly filling with must-pack items to take to Tokyo. Earplugs. Trusted makeup. She’s been practising being idle, preparing for those long waits between rapid races. Of course she’s been training her body with regimented, religious strictness, trying to time everything so that she peaks (“so that I’m in the shape of my life”) just as the competition begins. Asher-Smith also wants to say on record that she’s been planning for other possible interruptions that do not traditionally earn their mention in newspaper profiles.

“Periods,” she gasps. “Oh my God, I started planning for my periods back in January. Look. Everybody’s different. Some of my friends in athletics say, ‘It’s not even a part of it for me. I don’t think about it.’ And some of my friends are, like, ‘Arrrrgh! Noooo! Not today!’ Their bodies aren’t as regular. They’re, like, ‘Why now? When I’m wearing white?’ For them, periods can be make or break.”

Asher-Smith has tended to fall somewhere in the middle, she says. Not someone who’s ever been doubled over in pain or sickness before a race. Absolutely someone who knows what it is for her performances to suffer.

“Every major injury I’ve ever had has been on my period,” she says, “which is absolutely crazy. It’s for a number of reasons. The hormone levels in your body change. Your ligaments change. Your lower back’s sore, which means it pulls on your hamstrings more, and for a sprinter our hamstrings are our bread and butter. It’s not only your moves that are different. You make decisions that normally you just would not make. Sometimes I get insomnia on my period. So, instead of a consistent 10-hour sleep, suddenly it’s five hours, it’s four hours. If it’s a particularly bad period? That changed sleep can last for days.”

At the start of this year, Asher-Smith decided to be vocal about the subject of periods whenever the opportunity arose. In March, she wrote a column for an online sports journal called The Players’ Tribune in which she expressed her amazement that, although her menstrual cycle was something she often spoke about with her coaches and her peers, the matter remained taboo in almost all public discussion of elite sport. We wang on about an athlete’s technique, their fitness, their disposition on the day. We ask them about their comedically big breakfasts, their cool kit, their preferred weather, their lucky charms. Never periods. “Which can be such a humungous dictator of sporting performance,” Asher-Smith says, exasperated.

She’s grateful, anyway, to have spent her years working with a coach, John Blackie, “who knows how to listen to women, who has two daughters, who just gets it”. Asher-Smith and Blackie first met when she was eight. She was growing up in Orpington, on the border of London and Kent. Her competitive nature had been seeded by her dad, Winston, an engineer, who approached their father-daughter games in the garden as though he was facing off against the Olympian his daughter would later become. It was Asher-Smith’s mum, Julie, an HR worker, who persuaded her to try cross-country running. (An ice-cream bribe was involved.) After the family watched Kelly Holmes win double gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Asher-Smith got the idea she’d like to do the same. She drew a picture at school: Little Geraldina, wreath-crowned, wearing medals.

As a teenager in 2012 she was a bag-carrying volunteer at the London Olympics. The following year, elevated to Team GB’s senior team, she won World Championship bronze in the 4×100 relay. It had taken almost a decade of relentless, solitary work to shave a mere second off her 100m time and two seconds off her 200m time, but by doing so Asher-Smith became a consistent and serious contender on the world stage. Slowly she rose up the rankings towards her current positions: number one in the world in 200m (just ahead of Shaunae Miller-Uibo from the Bahamas) and number two in the world in 100m (just behind Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce from Jamaica). At her last major tournament, the 2019 World Championships, she made the podium three times and laid down a 100m time that put her in the books as the fastest British woman, ever. At the turn of 2020, everything boded well for the Olympics.

Asher-Smith had worked with Blackie for 16 years and counting by this point. They trusted each other. Even so, she says, grinning slyly, she felt a pang of betrayal when Blackie mentioned in training one day that the Tokyo Games could be postponed for a year. It was March 2020. Covid-19 was spreading. Asher-Smith was in denial, she recalls. “Proper, stubborn focus. Rumours were circulating, but the IOC [the International Olympics Committee] had said it was all still going ahead. As athletes we’re told to ignore the noise. So when my coach brought it up, I was like, ‘John? Really? You too?’”

As reality set in, Asher-Smith started to consider the benefits of a year-long postponement, all that finer-grain work she could do if she had that extra time. She could get stronger in the gym. Get a psychologist. Get a nutritionist. An Olympics postponement she could live with. Outright cancellation remained unthinkable. “People ask athletes, ‘How would you feel to have the Olympics cancelled?’ –as though that’s a standard question. They ask it almost like, ‘What do you like for breakfast?’ But to an athlete that question is gutting.”

In locker rooms, backstage in stadiums, she and her peers would never dare discuss the scrapping of an Olympics. “Not only is an Olympics your hopes and dreams and aspirations; not only is it everything you’ve trained for since you were a child, it’s also your mortgage. It’s how you fund your team. If all of your endorsements are tied to the Olympics – and 99% of them are – what happens to your home if there’s no Olympics? What happens to the homes of everyone on your team? Even though it might seem like a calm conversation starter, it’s really not. It’s literally like saying to someone: ‘So. You might lose your job. How d’you feel?’”

You’ll have gathered by now that Asher-Smith is a splendid and authoritative off-the-cuff talker, brimming opinion, with a political brain as electric and well-honed as her lower limbs. She was only four years old when her parents gave her what she now calls “the talk”: the realities of race in Britain and about what she should expect growing up as a young Black woman. Later, as a history undergrad in London between 2014 and 2017, she studied race relations and Black culture. Race, the politics of race, the discussion of race – all this has been a fundamental to her life.

“For me, everything is inherently political,” she says. “The fact that I have a job as a sprinter for instance. Not as a swimmer. Not as a gymnast. Would that have been different if, growing up, I’d seen more Black swimmers? If I’d seen more Simone Bileses? I am where I am because of politics. I am who I am because of politics.”

When George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota last summer, Asher-Smith wrote an unforgettable (and later award-winning) column for the Daily Telegraph about everyday racism and its long emotional tail. Being taken for an employee rather than a guest at a black-tie event was one of the many depressing experiences Asher-Smith described; also having to explain to strangers that, no, no, her father was a present figure in her life. She made it clear in the column that she’d made a deliberate choice to write about all this in a right-wing newspaper, in part to “engage those [readers] with a different worldview” and in part to “take up space” that might not otherwise have gone to someone who looked like her.

She talks about political expression at the recent football Euros, and how that might play out at the imminent Olympics. Asher-Smith makes an interesting point that footballers can protest (in the case of the Euros, by taking a knee) before the real sporting endeavour begins. But for sprinters, filmed for a few seconds by a passing camera on a starting line, any equivalent meaningful protest would almost certainly have to wait until after they’ve raced. The podium ceremonies at the Olympic Games are watched by millions of people; potentially, an ultra-visible platform for protest, but the IOC has instructed athletes that they mustn’t take a knee or protest in other ways during these ceremonies. Asher-Smith – a woman with politics in her bones – is taking a pragmatic approach towards it all.

“In the 100m you get 10 seconds in a heat, 10 seconds in a semi-final, 10 seconds in a final. Thirty seconds total to make your mark on the world. In the 200m it’s 21 seconds, 21 seconds, 21 seconds. Get anything wrong? Make a mistake? That can be years of training down the drain. The margins are so thin. The stakes are so high. I have to be in the right mindset to do well. I have to.” So, yes, she says, “I am who I am because of politics. But, in the moment, will I be thinking about that? No. I’ll barely even be letting myself think about the sound of the gun. In those 10 seconds, in those 21 seconds, I’ll be thinking about what it takes to win.”

She mentions the famous protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Black sprinters who took to an Olympics podium for 200m gold and bronze in 1968 with their fists raised to protest racial injustice. “It’s one of the most iconic moments in all sport,” says Asher-Smith. “But Smith and Carlos had to get to a podium to do that, right? You’ve got to get there. You can be upset. But you still have to perform. You cannot miss the fundamental step of getting there.”

Political expression, be that raising a fist, dropping to one knee, or some other action-in-the-moment – Asher-Smith calls these “after-things”, “actions for when the curtains have closed [on a race] and you can do whatever you want”. For now she intends to keep filling up her basket of must-pack items for Tokyo. She intends to crouch on the line on Friday, inhaling the familiar rubbery smell of the track, trying to feel and not hear the pistol crack. She intends to race and do everything she can to get there. The “after-things” can wait for afterwards.

Despite England’s collective sense of heartbreak, we could and should have been able to spend this week celebrating a second place finish at the Euros – a result that just a month ago would have been regarded as an extraordinary success.

We should be busy pouring adulation upon an England team that exceeded expectations. We should be projecting their image and their remarkable backstories around the world, promoting their togetherness and their ethos as an expression of the best aspects of England and Englishness.

Instead, in a damp week, in a so-far largely dismal summer, as a third wave of a pandemic spreads invisibly among us, we are forced to defend our national team from an outpouring of hate. In doing so we have no choice but to confront the very worst aspects of English football, and the ugliest strains of English nationalism.

The toxic racism and swaggering hyper-nationalism that has for decades accrued around the English game has contaminated our national symbols, left millions feeling excluded from the national game, and damaged our reputation abroad. The rot has grown deeper in recent months, in part because our political leaders have allowed that poison to fester and – when they calculated that it was in their electoral interests – cynically refused to condemn it.

This tournament has been a tale of two Englands. In one of those Englands the national anthems of other nations are booed and fans from rival nations, some of them women and children, are abused in the stadiums and on the streets. In that nation, thugs throw bottles across Leicester Square and storm Wembley itself. In that England some “supporters” believe it is acceptable to boo our own young players, for deciding to support one another in the face of racist abuse ceaselessly directed at the black members of the squad.

Right now it is that England that is being written about in newspapers across Europe: the thuggery and the racism are the big stories, displacing the astonishing tale of England’s revival under Gareth Southgate. We should perhaps be relieved that Sunday’s violence took place in our own capital rather than in Rome, Paris or Berlin.

The alternative England, the one embodied by Southgate’s team itself, is a nation that seems to flicker in and out of existence. The last time it openly celebrated its existence was three years ago, during the World Cup, when the team reached the semi-finals. Before that, it was nine years ago when, in another London stadium, we watched the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics: a celebration of youth, creativity and diversity. Since that occasion we have had the “hostile environment”, Brexit, the Windrush scandal, and the ceaseless and calculated demonisation of Black Lives Matter and all things “woke”.

Southgate’s England – encapsulated in his Dear England letter before this year’s tournament began – is united, youthful and instinctively forward-thinking. It is diverse, and comfortable in its diversity. It has the potential, if we were able to fully embrace it, to reclaim and decontaminate national symbols. This England team aims to write its own history – in stark contrast to the cult of bitter, backwards-looking jingoism that exists among sections of its fanbase (the “10 German bombers”, “Two world wars, one World Cup” version of English identity).

From the start of Euro 2020, both of those Englands have been on display. In the capital of a nation still in denial about its imperial past, in a stadium originally built for an exhibition to celebrate the British empire, during a European tournament in which around a third of the players are people of colour – most able to trace their roots back to Europe’s lost empires – England fielded a team made up of young men whose ancestors come from Ireland, Jamaica, St Kitts, Trinidad and Tobago, and Nigeria. Their backstories speak of historical truths we have yet to process. Their togetherness and commitment to anti-racism is the voice of the generation they represent, encouraged and amplified by Southgate’s leadership.

Their talent and their stories invite us to reimagine what English patriotism could mean. But where there should have been support, there was booing; when there could have been political leadership, there was opportunism.

For Boris Johnson’s government, the booing of the England team in the buildup to the tournament was a moment freighted with potential. Guided by its culture war strategising, it became its equivalent of Donald Trump’s response to a murderous attack by white supremacists on demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. Less crude and more calculating than Trump, Johnson and his advisers had no need to describe booing England fans as “very fine people”. Instead they spoke through silence; refusing to condemn them and dismissing the taking of the knee by England’s players as “gesture politics”. The message was clear.

During the tournament the thinktank British Future released the results of a survey that showed that one in 10 people regard Englishness as a racial identity. In their minds, black people can never truly be English. Not many decades ago many more than 10% of us held that view. Yet although outnumbered, that 10% are never silent.

While England were winning, their hate was largely exiled to the toxic margins of social media. But literally within minutes of the team’s first and only defeat, and given a free pass by the government to target their national team, those who believe blackness and Englishness are mutually exclusive unleashed their fury against the black players who missed penalties.

The ugly events since Sunday’s defeat have forced us to acknowledge just how deep the gulf between our Englands run. But the shame and shock that many people feel at the abuse directed against England’s black players will not halt the drumbeat of calculated provocation and wilful division that has helped bring us to this point. That campaign is sanctioned by politicians so shameless that last week they donned newly purchased England tops, to cheer on a team whose moral stance they had derided only last month.

Yet, despite the brutal clarity of this moment, what Southgate’s team have done remains astonishing. They have made an appeal to the best aspects of Englishness and done so against the direction of play, during an era in which politicians mobilise our worst instincts and darkest fears. Twenty-six young men and their remarkable manager have again reminded us that there is another path, another form of English patriotism, another way of being together and – if enough of us want it – another England.

David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster

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