Adam Gemili is sitting in a tree in a park in his home town. He’s not sure what he’s doing there and nor am I, but the photographer doing the shoot has decided it will yield some scenic pictures, so Gemili has gamely obliged. I’m worried he’ll topple from his branch and fracture a ligament, thus diminishing our hopes of future athletics glory.
Luckily, however, he turns out to be as adept at balancing as at sprinting, and a few minutes later he's safely back on terra firma and leading us to the neighbouring running track at Dartford Harriers Athletic Club in Kent. Before long, Sacha Gemili has joined us too, who as well as being Adam's mother is also his manager.
A diminutive Iranian-born woman, she is warm and funny and lovely and tells me about the things her modest son won't, such as his impressive culinary skills. But I’m really there to speak to 24-year-old Adam, who won a gold medal as part of the men’s 4x100m relay team at the World Athletics Championships in London in August.
The victory - which saw the British relay team complete the race in 37.47 seconds - was something like redemption for him after he had missed out on an individual place in the 200m after suffering a hamstring injury and being denied sufficient time to prove his fitness. His bitter disappointment at being passed over gave way to the kind of unbridled joy unique to triumphant sportsmen and women.
“It was probably the best I’ve ever felt on the athletics track,” says Gemili once we’ve settled into the corner of a shabby room above the club pavilion, which hardly befits his sporting stardom.
Gemili is bursting with excitement about his sport, deploying a string of superlatives to describe it. His puppy-like enthusiasm, coupled with his humility, is endearing. He can say things like “I never self-doubt, I always believe in my ability and if I’m fit I can try and run with the best in the world” without sounding remotely arrogant. As he puts it: “We just go out there and run in a circle.”
Quite. But he’s bloody good at it. “A couple of days [after the London victory] I came back and saw family and people I know and you just go back to normal life really, you just crack on and [ask] ‘what’s the next goal?’ A lot of my friends started going, ‘oh, you only won because [Jamaican champion Usain] Bolt got injured’ and they started winding me up. It’s nice to have people like that around,” he says.
Gemili is unusual for an athlete: he used to be a footballer, scouted by Chelsea as a boy and spending eight years at the club, followed by a year and a half at Reading, then Dagenham & Redbridge, who offered him a professional contract. For many boys his age, being signed as a pro footballer would be a dream come true. Gemili, however - a grammar school kid who was in his words “pretty much a geek” - wanted a degree.
“The contract I was offered wasn’t enough for me to walk away completely from university and give up on that,” he says. “I always wanted to go to university and they said if you’re going to play professional football you can’t.”
So he walked off the football pitch and on to the running track, starting training as a sprinter in 2012. “Luckily I picked things up really quickly and made the Olympic team, which at the time was crazy. I didn’t even realise the scale of the Olympics until after that. People had been training so hard for this and for me, I was always planning to go back to football if the year didn’t go well,” he says.
He also managed to fulfil his other dream, studying sports science and human biology at the University of East London while commuting to Loughborough for training. For this, he has his parents to thank. “They’ve always said whatever you want to do you can do, as long as you get your degree.” Now they’re pushing him to get his Masters.
They are not, however, the type of pushy parents sometimes seen in sport, harrying him to win at all costs. “We never as a family had a lot of money but my parents always made sure we were provided for,” he says. Gemili’s father is a Moroccan who moved to Britain in his late teens, and the son describes his own heritage as “a strange mix.”
“You don’t forget your roots, and we go back to Morocco. I’ve been to Iran once and it was cool,” he says. His father is a practising Muslim but the rest of the family are not religious.
Has Gemili experienced any racism in the sport? “Not really. A little bit. You can never please everyone. Four out of five people will always support you but you always get one person who wants to say something, and with social media it’s so easy for someone to just make an account, type something, click send and never think about it again. But they don’t realise the repercussions.”
Sounding chipper, he says it doesn’t affect him; that he’s been used to it since he was young. He seems reluctant to say anything negative, even about racism. “I try to just laugh at it,” he says. “Sometimes if one of my friends sees a tweet or something someone’s said they’ll send it to me and we’ll have a laugh about it. You get some stuff on social media but never in person.”
So people troll him online because of his ethnic background? “Yeah, but you always get that. The funny one someone sent to me was, ‘Adam Gemili is another immigrant stealing British jobs.’ Obviously it’s not a nice thing to say but it’s quite funny. You deal with that; it’s part and parcel of being a sportsperson.”
Gemili, an ambassador for QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot this weekend, is sportsmanlike about most things, eager to praise and to please. On Bolt: “He’s a really nice guy. He’s just normal and open and very humble.” On Sir Mo Farah, with whom he is pally: “What he’s done in Britain for athletics is unparalleled. He is in my opinion the greatest British athlete and he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for that.”
Why not? “I don’t know. He gets a lot of stick for a lot of stuff. It’s his personal issues, which I’m not going to go into.”
Earlier this year, Sir Mo strongly denied breaking anti-doping rules after his coach, Alberto Salazar, became the subject of an anti-doping investigation. (Sir Mo was never accused of doping and had his training camp cleared by UK Athletics.) On the subject of cleaning up the sport, Gemili says: “There’s still a way to go but it’s going in the right direction.”
In his downtime, he prefers to chat football to athletics. And he rarely drinks - “I never really have. Just personal”. Currently living in the Netherlands, where he trains, he has recently moved in with his girlfriend of three-and-a-half-years, a teacher called Hannah Lloyd who he met in his Loughborough days. “It’s going well,” he says coyly.
Lloyd crops up intermittently on his Instagram feed, the tenor of which is overwhelmingly cheerful and fun.
“[In] everything I’m doing, I try and make sure I’m happy; otherwise what’s the point?” he says. “ You get one life really - that’s what I believe - and if you don’t do what you want to do you’re miserable.”
Adam Gemili is an ambassador for QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot on October 21. For tickets go to britishchampionsday.co.uk