The British sprint star speaks with Alex Hoad for an in-depth interview on his Olympic aims, proving he is not the ‘forgotten man’, athletics governance goals and more
In a world measured in thousandths of a second, a 12-month delay seems a lifetime, but Adam Gemili believes postponing Tokyo 2020 has increased his chances of Olympic glory.
Until Covid-19 put paid to the 2020 Games, the 26-year-old sprinter had been preparing for what would be his third Olympics, training under the guidance of acclaimed former British Athletics coach Rana Reider in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Blackheath & Bromley AC athlete has seen his group – which includes triple Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse from Canada, Jamaican prospect Christopher Taylor and fellow Brit Daryll Neita – locked out of the running track at the University of North Florida amid the nationwide lockdown.
“We’ve just been trying to run anywhere we can, dodging dogs and all sorts,” Gemili reveals. “We’ve been thrown off more fields than I can count – I think dog walkers have been complaining about us.
“It’s challenging but I’m just trying to stay as fit as possible in the hopes there might be some kind of a season later this year.”
In late March, as the pandemic swept the globe, the IOC announced the Tokyo Games would be postponed for 12 months. It brought to an end weeks of uncertainty for athletes, a time during which Gemili says ‘people were losing their heads’.
“That limbo was one of the toughest periods in sport for a lot of athletes,” he explains. “We just didn’t know what was going on. We had to train as if it was going ahead, but it was very hard to stay motivated.”
Gemili admits to a ‘blowout’ weekend of pizza after the announcement and adds: “You need that in sport sometimes – when you’re training for the biggest event of your life and it gets taken away in an instant.
“You’re so strict with your diet and sleep, your training and recovery. A lot of athletes had a few days where they needed to come to terms with it all, have some bad food and chill.
“We got it out of our systems, reset and come the Monday we went again. A lot of people’s sponsorship deals are coming to an end this year and if you don’t compete this year if you can, it won’t help you get a new one. That’s a big motivation for a lot of athletes, me included.”
The Dartford star insists he is looking at the additional 12 months as a positive – an opportunity to be even better, on and off the track, in Tokyo.
“It was the right decision to call off the Olympics because people’s safety comes first – it’s bigger than sport,” he says.
“You take the extra year as a positive. Obviously it’s disappointing because you’ve had four years of build-up and you’ve planned everything for 2020. I was so excited for this year and I felt I was in great shape, but it’s another year to train and get faster.
“If I can use this as an opportunity to get stronger and better then hopefully the performances in Tokyo can be even more exciting for people watching back home.”
It also affords Gemili the chance to perfect the Japanese he had begun learning ahead of the summer. The latest word he’s picked up: ‘gōrudo’. It means ‘gold’.
“I’ve made my peace with Rio”
After bursting on to the international stage less than two months before London 2012, a teenage Gemili reached the semi-finals, finishing six hundredths of a second adrift of a place in the final.
Four years later in Rio, Gemili swept into the 200m final and looked destined for a place on the podium behind Usain Bolt and De Grasse.
However after dipping simultaneously for the line with Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre, both athletes were given a time of 20.12 and it took an agonising photo finish to separate them. Gemili was condemned to fourth – the cruellest position in Olympic sport – by just three thousandths of a second.
After plenty of heartbreak and soul-searching, Gemili insists: “I’ve made my peace with Rio. I don’t think about it that often. I actually take positives from it – it gives me the confidence that I can run with the best in the world.
“From missing out in Rio and also at the World Championships in Doha last season – when I was winning the 200m until about 150m then died because I ran a stupid race – I know if I was to correct that racing I’d be better.
“I’m confident,” he adds. “I am now training with guys like Andre. I’ve seen him medal in Rio and Doha (where the Canadian claimed 100m bronze and 200m silver). I’m there with him at training, beating him some days.
“I know if I can do it in training then I can do it in competition. If you want to be the best you have to train with the best and that’s what I’m doing. I’m with some of the best sprinters in the world, some of the top names in the sport, every day and I’m loving it.
“I know I have the ability. I have always believed in myself and hopefully others have started to believe that I can challenge and be one of the fastest men in the world.
“I fully believe if I’m healthy and fit there’s no reason why I can’t go and win an Olympic medal next year.”
Faster than ever
The last eight Olympic 100m gold medals have been secured in times faster than Gemili’s personal best of 9.97. That effort in Birmingham came in 2015 but remains the only time he has broken the 10-second barrier without wind assistance. The 2012 world junior champion however says he feels capable of shocking the athletics world and claiming a gold in Tokyo.
“When my training group are all lined up, we could fill the track with sub-10 runners – it’s like a Diamond League,” Gemili says. “Before lockdown we were all doing block starts together and, if you’re not on your A-game, you’re getting killed.
“It helps me a lot, because when you come to big races and you have these big names next to you it doesn’t faze you. It helps give you confidence that I’m training with the fastest men in the world – every single person has run 9.9 or even 9.8 at some point.
“I’m with them at 30 or 40 metres and I know my top end is really good as well. There’s no reason why I couldn’t have gone and run 9.8 this summer. I’ve been working hard and I’m excited to show people what I’ve been doing.
“I know I can run sub-10 really easily – I have done it so many times in training. I have run times faster than people would ever consider me capable of getting close to, it’s just about executing it on the day. I haven’t done that. Yet.”
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One of the last workouts we did as a group before lockdown happened! 5 vs 5 continuous relay race. Each athlete has to complete 10x100m back to back. This one was a killer!!! 💀 #tumbleweed #sprinters #goodvibes #trackandfield #tracknation #sprint #track #field #speed #athletics #sub10 #sub20 #runner #athlete #training
While that sunny afternoon at the Alexander Stadium five years ago cemented Gemili as the first Brit ever to break both 10 seconds over 100m and 20 seconds for 200m, it came at a huge cost – one which Gemili believes he is repaying to this day.
Another ill-fated dip on the line in the pursuit of medals, flanked by Americans Marvin Bracy and Michael Rodgers, led to Gemili losing balance and sustaining a devastating hamstring injury, tearing the muscle in three places. To see the clock showing 9.97 was bittersweet.
“If you gave me the choice between having that PB or not dipping at the Birmingham Diamond League like it’s the Olympic final – throwing myself across the line trying to win – there’s no choice,” he says.
“I would definitely take having my hamstring back in one piece because that injury still gives me bother to this day. It’s still an issue.
“I have managed to adapt and I have a great medical team around me to ensure I’m in great shape but that injury caused so many problems for so many years. Every year until then was great but that was the first time I had a real low in my career.”
“I’d run really well in the heat and hit 10.00 so easily,” he adds. “In the final I wasn’t chasing the time I was chasing the win, but if I’d relaxed and cruised through the line I still think I’d have gone sub-10, but I would have been healthy.
“In that year I was in such good shape to have really pushed on, too – I hadn’t even run a 200m since winning the Europeans (in a sub 20-second time) in Zurich the previous year.
“It’s sport, you move on, I’ve dealt with it and I’m in a really happy place. My body is good. I just want to show people how fast I can run and that I’m not the forgotten man.”
If not forgotten, he was certainly overlooked by British Athletics when they deemed him unworthy of top-level Olympic podium potential funding in late 2018, instead awarding mere relay runner funding.
“There was a lot of talk the past couple of years that I am just a relay runner. I find it quite funny,” he explains. “I hate blowing my own horn. I always believe ‘stay humble’, but I was the first man in Britain to run sub-10 and sub-20 – the only person to have done that.
“I made the final at every senior champs bar my first, London 2012, when I was 18. I have always been in and around the world’s best sprinters but then people in your own governing body are calling you a relay runner. Come on, put a bit of respect on my name.
“People are allowed their opinions – it’s sport. You’re in a world where people look at you and judge you. It’s part of the job. If you don’t want it, go and get another job.
“You get over it and learn the people whose opinions are important are the people around you, your team, your family and that’s all I need.”
While he is proud of his relay accomplishments – world and European golds and Commonwealth silver in the 4x100m – Gemili admits he’d swap them all for those three-thousandths which kept him off the podium in Rio four years ago.
“I’ll always be grateful for the relay, it’s given me the chance to be a world champion sprinter,” he says. “To stand on a podium with three really good friends and hear your anthem… and we did it in London!
“The relay is amazing and I’m not taking anything away from it, but nobody trains their whole life to be a relay runner, I put the work in for me and I’d take an individual medal over all the relay ones.
“Hopefully though next year we’ll be able to win a relay and I can get an individual medal. Wouldn’t that be perfect?”
While his sights are firmly set on Tokyo, Gemili allows his mind to wander to Paris in four years and even Los Angeles in 2028.
“I am 26 now and life is coming so quickly,” he says. “I’m hoping for at least another two Olympics – I’ll push for three though. I’ll go until my body says stop. The day I run and give it my all and I look at the time and think ‘that’s not cutting it anymore’ I will stop.
“Hopefully that will be on my own terms and then I can go into whatever is next – probably playing five-a-side every week.”
Or perhaps governing the sport which has catapulted him from the relative obscurity of academy football at Chelsea and Dagenham & Redbridge to become the poster-boy of athletics in this country?
“I’d love to go into governance,” he admits. “There needs to be change in the sport and I’m looking forward to, when I finish, hopefully coming into that role and making some changes in athletics.
“Coaching is great but I feel like I could have more of an impact at the top level of sport where you can make decisions which go from grass roots all the way up to elite.”
Gemili already has experience – he was the face of the athletes’ challenge to the British Olympic Association (BOA) about the ‘Rule 40’ policy regarding sponsorship during Olympics.
“I believe I have great ideas and I can really make a difference,” he adds. “I am passionate and believe in what I preach. I am willing to take a stand, I did it against the BOA.
“Other athletes shied away and some were worried it might taint their image. I was willing to stand up and, even if It wasn’t going to make me the most popular person, I knew it was the right thing to do.”
By his own admission, Gemili is a ‘very different Adam’ these days – and not just by ignoring his mother Sacha’s pleas for him to go clean shaven.
“I have a voice and I want to be heard,” he claims. “I’m a very different person to that baby-faced 18-year-old Adam who was naive and happy-go-lucky and just happy to be there.
“I belong in this sport. If I’m not challenging for medals then I’m failing.
“I’m not just here to fill a lane and make a Jamaican or an American look good. I want to win medals.”
Let’s hope it’s gōrudo.
» Alex Hoad can be found on Twitter at @AlexHoadSport