Dina Asher-Smith is already the track and field captain and supreme hope for British athletics in Tokyo. She doesn’t need any more pressure. But it’s hard not to dwell on the reality that no female in a GB vest has ever won gold in the 100m or 200m at the Games.
To find any medals at all in the women’s sprints you need to roll back to the age of Dorothys and Audreys. In London at the 1948 Games, Dorothy Manley won silver in the 100m and Audrey Williamson was runner-up in the 200. Twelve years later in Rome, Dorothy Hyman, the daughter of a Yorkshire coal miner, won silver in the 100m and bronze in the longer dash.
Asher-Smith isn’t running in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay to exorcise history’s ghosts or correct an anomaly for Britain in track and field. She has enough to worry about with Covid disruptions, a punishing schedule and the formidable array of mostly Jamaican talent on the Tokyo start lines, which has prompted Michael Johnson, the former 400m and 200m Olympic champion, to suggest the women’s sprints this time round are more interesting than the men’s.
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All you can say about the quest for a British women’s gold is that Asher-Smith winning either event would be even more enjoyable for its novelty value. Asher-Smith specialises in breakthroughs, from talking freely about the effect of menstruation on her training and injuries to setting out why the Olympic movement can no longer suppress the political and social views of athletes.
On taking a knee at the Games, she said: "If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality, how on earth would that go, how on earth are you going to enforce that? Would you revoke someone's medal for saying racism is wrong? I see protesting and expressing yourself as a fundamental human right.”
In a recent Guardian interview she argued: “For me, everything is inherently political. 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.”

‘Almost all of the pressure will be on her’ – Rutherford on Asher-Smith’s remarkable opportunity

Anyone who has spent even a brief time in her company knows she’s an athlete and person of exceptional substance - of intellect, star quality and professional intent. She is captain of the GB team and its guiding light in how she marshals her talent and her profile. To inspire and inform at such a level while also radiating such lust for life is to attract vast goodwill when she sets out, in the 100m heats, to add to her 200m World Championship gold from 2019 and bronze from the 4x100m relay at the Rio Games five years ago.
Curiously, athletics remains the historical flagship in British Olympic activities with 55 golds, but in the modern age cycling, sailing, rowing (until Tokyo) and increasingly swimming and boxing are the harvest sports. Britain won four track and field golds at London 2012 but dropped to two in Rio (Mo Farah in the men’s 10,000m and 5,000m). British athletics needs a boost but Asher-Smith will need to exceed her own deeds thus far to provide it.
In the 100m, Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the 2008 and 2012 champion, ran 10.63 in Kingston in June - the second-fastest 100m time in history. Breaking 10.7 for the first time, less at 34, less than two months before Tokyo, was a statement bound to chill not only with Asher-Smith but Elaine Thompson-Herah, the defending champion in both the 100m and 200m, and Shericka Jackson, who has switched from 400m running to the shorter distances. At the minimum, Asher-Smith is currently third-favourite at 4-1 with British bookmakers.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is the fastest woman alive over the 100m

Image credit: Getty Images

In the 200m, for the first time, six women have run under 22 seconds in a year. Asher-Smith’s major rivals here are America’s Gabby Thomas, who has run the second fastest ever 200m, Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Fraser-Pryce, Thompson-Herah and Jackson again. Here the bookies have Asher-Smith fourth in the market at 9-2.
The reason for mentioning those odds is to show what she’s up against. But one of the qualities picked out by Michael Johnson is Asher-Smith’s ability to peak under pressure, to harness her abundant energy and confidence on the start line. Unbeaten in 2021 and ranked No 1 in the 200m, Asher-Smith’s talent for compartmentalisation evokes the Japanese “masks of life” concept, where a different ‘face’ is applied for work and life.
She is, she says, looking for her “max” - “how far I can go.” We already know part of the answer. As a youth international at London 2012 she was a kit carrier, conveying boxes of clothes and possessions on to the track for older athletes. She was on duty on Super Saturday - the night of Ennis, Farah and Rutherford - a memory, she says, that’s “going to stay with me forever, and very much inspired me to keep pushing and to keep trying to be the best athlete I can be - just because of the power of the sport. I felt it that night.”
The Corinthian Olympics of London in 1948 and Rome (1960) are hard to connect with today’s digitalised, crowd-less, polychromatic Tokyo Games, but if Asher-Smith could end a 61-year wait for a sprint medal of any colour, and win Britain’s first women’s sprint gold, then ‘illustrious’ will barely do to describe her place in British Olympic history. Her social importance is guaranteed either way. But the next five days are about surpassing the Dorothys and an Audrey from a vanished age.
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