Tokyo blues. Dina-Asher Smith did pretty well, all things considered, to keep it together for the opening minute and seven seconds of a startlingly raw post-race debrief in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium, and fresh from elimination in the semi-final of the 100 metres.
The past five weeks have, it turns out, been an extraordinary story of cloak and dagger rehab for the fastest British woman ever to take to the track. On 26 June Asher-Smith felt a pop in her hamstring en route to winning the Team GB trials in Manchester in a time of 10.97sec. As she told the gathered journalists in that Tokyo hanger, “You were all looking at the clock, you didn’t know what the story was.”
What followed was a hair-raising tale, hidden until now behind a veneer of public positivity, of misdiagnosed ruptures, abandoned KFC binges, pleading at the airport terminal, crutches in the hotel lobby, the holistic healing hands of Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, and from there a month of dread, doubt and hope.
The story took 20 minutes to tell in Tokyo, mixed with tearful moments, a few laughs, and a sense of something finally being allowed to pass. That road had taken Asher-Smith all the way to the finish line of her 100m semi-final. But not, in the end, any further.
On Friday night there had been a sense in her 100m heat of something askew. So much so that at least one journalist present had sought to confirm with the Team GB media personnel the whispers of a serious injury lurking, only to be told, still, that all was fine.
Sprinters often keep their cards close, and even showboat a little in these early rounds. Asher-Smith, had been in shape of her life going to Manchester, but in Tokyo she looked oddly tentative.
By Saturday night there was one striking change. Asher-Smith had died the tips of her hair blue, a touch of the GB flag from the team captain who, frankly, by that point probably needed a little light relief. She looked tense. But then, this was perhaps the finest women’s 100m field ever assembled.
Two lanes across Elaine Thompson-Herah stretched and peered down the line. Two hours later she would retain her gold from Rio, a thrilling blur of balance and power as she finished in an Olympic record time. Asher-Smith has only been back in spikes for a week. Last month she thought she wouldn’t be here at all. She stood with her hand on hips then crouched at the blocks.
The start was fair. The transition into her running looked smooth enough from track-side. Later, though, Asher-Smith would talk about the pain she felt at these switches of gear. And by now Thompson-Herah was already moving ahead, easing up through that automatic gearbox, the kind of acceleration that comes without any edges or kinks in the curve. With 50 metres gone and the field closing around her Asher-Smith reached a point where ignition just had to come.
The way things had worked after Manchester sounded truly chaotic. Immediately after the trials Asher-Smith had a statement “ready to go on my phone” withdrawing herself from the Tokyo Games. It was only when she sent her scans to Germany, and Müller-Wohlfahrt offered some hope, that she put away the comfort food, got her head back into the game, and set off on an undercover dash through Covid travel hell, via desperate messages to the selectors not to rule her out, into a fraught, tender and clearly very disorientating period of hope against reality.
On the track in that semi-final Asher-Smith looked for the surge, that state where an athlete relaxes and feels the speed start to come. Except, not here. She was struggling, fighting her body and pushing it when pushing it only ever breaks the spell. Did she know at 50 metres her race here was done?
“No, I don’t think like that. I’m an athlete who believes it doesn’t matter what’s happening you have to keep on believing.” And she did keep going. The suggestion from the British camp is that Asher-Smith had already had time to “grieve” for her own Olympics though the high-wire act of the last five weeks. But there is also room for some satisfaction here.
She still ran 11.05 seconds on one fully-functioning leg, but was edged into third by Ajla Del Ponte of Switzerland. There was a grimace as Asher-Smith walked off the track, aware there was little chance of making it as one of the two fastest finishers outside the top two who went through from each semi-final.
Clearly there was a sense of release too. The pressure to perform here has been huge. Seb Coe called her, a little unhelpfully, “the poster girl” of these Games, and Asher-Smith came to Tokyo as the leading athletics medal hope, with a chance to become the first British Olympic medallist in the women’s 100m not called “Dorothy” (Dorothy Manley won silver at the 1948 Games, Dorothy Hyman silver in Rome in 1960).
British women’s sprinting has not been a winning machine. Aged 25 she has elevated this discipline, her collection of medals to this point already an outlier. Plus of course Asher-Smith has used that platform to become a powerful public voice, from talking structural racism with the readers of the Daily Telegraph, to raising the vital importance of keeping young girls playing sport when so many drop out.
Did she think about just saying no, of sitting it out, of letting that pressure drop? “The easiest thing would have been to say I’m not going to get on the plane, that would have saved my pride, it would have saved everything.”
Asher-Smith has a five-year plan, a quick turnover from here of worlds, Europeans and Olympics. This was a blue-riband moment on that journey. But everything is not lost, including her pride, just a race that was run with no little courage against the Olympic glare