By her own admission, Dina Asher-Smith feels more comfortable engaging with contentious subjects in writing than in interviews. “I feel that comes from my degree,” says this history graduate of King’s College London. “I find it better to take some time to consider what you’re saying before you put it out there. In interviews, sometimes people are looking for a shock reaction. It’s really important, in this age of Twitter and 280 characters, that there’s space for grey matter. Not every issue is black and white.”
So it is with some trepidation, as we talk at a Brands Hatch hotel near her home in Kent, that I broach the issue of transgender and intersex women in athletics. Their eligibility to compete is a fraught but hugely significant debate for track and field this year. Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, has already indicated that he favours a ban, arguing: “Biology trumps gender.”
A final decision is due to be reached in November, with potentially major implications for the women’s 200 metres, Asher-Smith’s main event. Two of her fastest rivals, Namibia’s Beatrice Masilingi and Aminatou Seyni of Niger, have been determined as having differences in sexual development, with naturally high testosterone levels. Both have been banned from the 400m but are allowed to race in the 200, with World Athletics’ scientific studies suggesting that elevated testosterone confers less of a performance advantage over the shorter distance.
'It is so important it transcends sport'
Against this backdrop, I ask Asher-Smith whether enough is being done to protect the integrity of the female category in sport. “It’s a very good question,” she says. “It’s a very good way of putting it. It needs a lot more research on both sides, frankly. It’s such an important question. It transcends sport. It’s way beyond sport. So, take it outside the sporting context. It’s something we’re grappling with as a society. It needs completely open thinking, so that you can understand everything. You need to have every single fact possible, before you draw any conclusions. I would love to see so much more research, removed from any bias, so that we truly understand the whole situation. I still think that we don’t.”
The answer is measured and respectful. And yet for several minutes after the tape has stopped, she agonises over whether any of her words could be misconstrued. It is an illustration both of how white-hot the controversy has become and of her own sensitivity to nuance.
Instinctively circumspect, she has tried, over the past two years, to be more vocal about socio-cultural concerns and how they relate to her personal experience. In June 2020, shortly after the Olympics’ postponement by the pandemic, she wrote a searing piece for this newspaper on her reaction to George Floyd’s murder, which affected her so viscerally that she struggled to sleep.
“When I knew that Tokyo was not going to be the Tokyo I had envisaged, my brain was in a bit of a different space,” she reflects. "Sometimes, when you’re a competitor, you get very guarded. Say there’s a media storm? That could affect your performance, how your federation acts towards you. When this has been a dream since you were eight years old, you have a right to protect that. At that time, though, I felt I could be more open, more up front. I’m happy I chose that moment to say, ‘You can’t stop people talking. You can’t stop people using their voice.’”
'Still so much work to be done'
Her voice was unmistakeable as she described, for example, having been confused as an employee rather than an attendee of black-tie events, purely because of the colour of her skin.
Does she believe, two years on, that British society has changed for the better? She shakes her head, ruefully. “No. There are a few more buzzwords and hashtags, but things haven’t improved too much. It’s sad. Lots of people were hopeful there would be a shift. There’s more of an awareness, but still so much work to be done.”
Asher-Smith has little time for slipping into fatalism, given she is in the midst of what she calls a “summer like no other”. Her original aim was to peak for an unparalleled sequence of three major championships between mid-July and late August, although she concedes: “It’s really difficult to be ‘locked in’ for six weeks.”
So, ultimately, it would prove: within 48 hours of taking bronze in the 200m at the world championships in Eugene, she pulled up in the sprint relay final with a hamstring strain, ruling her out of the Commonwealths. It was, self-evidently, a wrench. “The chance to perform in front of a home crowd doesn’t happen too often at our level,” she says. “The fact it was going to be in Birmingham made my whole team put it on the priority list.”
To purge her dismay, she has the motivation of trying to defend the first of three European titles, in Monday’s 100m in Munich, where compatriot Daryll Neita and Switzerland’s Mujinga Kambundji will be her chief rivals. “Mujinga has gone under seven seconds for 60m this year – she’s phenomenal,” Asher-Smith says. “I feel like we’re at a place with women’s sprinting where it’s amazing to be part of it.”
For perhaps the first time, the women’s 100m is today a more compelling spectacle than the men’s. Take this week’s Diamond League meeting in Monaco, where Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won in 10.62sec, the sixth-fastest time ever recorded, aged 35.
The field was so stacked, with Marie-Josee Ta Lou’s 10.72 good enough only for third, it made you question Asher-Smith’s prospects of a medal at the Paris Olympics in two years’ time. After the anguish of Tokyo, where she limped away injured, an Olympic individual medal is still the one conspicuous gap in her collection. Not that, at 26, she is fretful just yet.
“Everybody’s running until 36, 37 now, so I’ve got ages,” she laughs. “When I came into this sport, I wanted to see how fast I could go, whether I could be an elite sprinter, to try to represent the country. I’ve already surpassed that in so many ways. I didn’t know I would be one of those girls running 10.8, I didn’t know I would be a sub-22 runner for 200.
“I’m still really young, especially as everyone is extending careers. Yes, Tokyo was frustrating, but afterwards I felt, ‘Move along.’ Sometimes that’s all you can do. It doesn’t detract from who you are, how mentally strong you are. It doesn’t make the work you’ve done previously just disappear.”
She cites Fraser-Pryce, still sweeping all before her as a mother of a four-year-old, as a vital figure in reshaping preconceptions of female athletes’ longevity. “Truly, when is retirement?” she asks. “Previously, there would be a stop mark at 30 or 32, when women would say, ‘Right, I want a child.” Behind the scenes, that was seen as incompatible with running fast, despite the fact that it had been proved wrong by athletes before.
“It was still the party line, even though you had people like Shelly-Ann, Hellen Obiri, Nia Ali, who is on her third child and still running really well in Diamond League. Their value was still being cut short. So you thought, ‘30, 32, that must be when you stop.’ But now you can have a baby and continue going, and who knows how long for? It becomes more on a par with the men: when is your mind ready to stop? When is your body ready?”
Asher-Smith draws her inspirations from diverse sources. Invited to name one role model, she chooses six: “Allyson Felix, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Christine Ohuruogu, Kelly Holmes, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka. They’re all great examples of being both successful and very focused, very disciplined, handling yourself with grace and dignity.”
These were lessons, memorably, that she channelled in response to her nightmare in Tokyo. Where once she might have internalised her despair, she left it all on public display with a torrent of tears, disclosing that she had been injured for over a month.
“Some were saying at the Olympics, ‘Oh, that’s not normal, that’s not even the same Dina we saw five weeks ago,’” she reflects. “There were people who had been supporting me, who deserved to know. It was definitely cathartic.” She understands today that it is futile to hide being hurt. But there is also a sense that only a medal in Paris will deliver the catharsis she truly craves.