Team GB’s golden girl Dina Asher-Smith is chasing a sprint double at the Tokyo Olympics but says her background as a history student helps her put her achievements in perspective.
Asher-Smith is Britain’s best hope of victory on the track, with long-distance runner Mo Farah — a four-time gold medallist — failing even to qualify for the Games.
The 200m world champion is one of the favourites to win over the distance but faces stiff competition from rivals such as Gabrielle Thomas, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and defending Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah.
Asher-Smith has a busy Games lined up — she is also entered in the 100m and the 4x100m relay.
The 25-year-old athlete, known for her infectious grin, told Harper’s Bazaar that people used to think she “doesn’t care”.
“I do, of course,” she said. “But I studied history at university, so I spent every day learning about death tolls and wars and bad decisions.
“I know I’m very fortunate that the most important thing in my life is running fast in a straight line — so I’ve always had the perspective of, ‘If it goes well, fab, and if not, then life goes on’.”
Asher-Smith’s ability to keep a sense of perspective also helped when the Games were postponed last year.
“When I heard, I went out and got a chocolate cake and a six-pack of Coca-Cola, and I had a lot of McDonald’s apple pies,” she said.
The sprinter has come a long way since she had to be bribed to run with the offer of an ice cream and is a self-confessed perfectionist.
“I could easily be sitting there with videos, winding back my sessions and studying my technique, but that would mean I’d be overthinking as I ran,” she said.
“So I just rely on my coach [John Blackie, whom she has known since she was eight] to either give me a thumbs-up or a ‘meh’.”
She has got the thumbs-up a lot in recent years, peaking at the 2019 world championships in Doha, where she took 200m gold in a time of 21.88sec and won silver medals in the 100m and 4x100m relay.
– London 2012 kit carrier –
Asher-Smith was a starry-eyed kit carrier when the 2012 Olympics were staged in London.
The highlight was “Super Saturday” when one of her idols, Jessica Ennis-Hill, won the heptathlon on a glorious night for the home nation also featuring gold medals for long-jumper Greg Rutherford and Farah in the 10,000 metres.
Asher-Smith appeared at her first Games four years later in Rio, finishing fifth in the 200m and winning a bronze in the 100m relay but is a contender for gold in Tokyo in an event that has never been won by a British woman.
As well as doing her talking on the track, she has been vocal on social issues, speaking out on the anniversary of the death of George Floyd in the United States.
“Footballers are still being racially abused on social media,” she said. “And we are banned by the IOC from even being able to express our hurt, frustration and outrage at racism, racist violence and racial inequality.”
That came before the International Olympic Committee released new guidelines softening a long-standing ban on political protests at the Games.
Asher-Smith said black people needed to keep fighting for equality.
“We need to keep pushing — using our voices, dismantling barriers, destroying stereotypes, taking up space and continuing to be our most vibrant, unapologetic selves at all times,” she said.
Earlier this year she talked about the dangers of promoting an aesthetic ideal for female sports stars in marketing messages, fearing the impact on young girls.
“If you’re the GOAT [greatest of all time], the world-record holder, the gold medallist, that’s it,” she wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “You deserve everything that comes with that. It’s simple.
“At least it is for men. But there are countless examples of where this isn’t the case in women’s sports.”
Asher-Smith is already a powerful role model. Her platform may be about to become much, much bigger.