Sports Editor Alfie Wilson on the achievements of King’s College London (KCL) alumni at this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Only 18 months ago, those in the know at KCL that Dina Asher-Smith was one of our proud alumnae were thrilled with the prospect of a near perfect career trajectory – graduate at King’s, won gold in the 200m at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha before sealing an Olympic Gold Medal in 7 months’ time. I could think of worse careers.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. First, it was Covid that dashed her dreams for a year, despite this allowing Dina another year of development in her relatively young career to further push the more established competitors in the field, such as the indomitable Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (who pipped her to gold in the 100m at the 2019 World Champs).
As England emerged from its lockdown at the start of 2021, Asher-Smith began to rebuild the momentum that had been lost in the previous calendar year, boosting her illustrious CV with impressive performances in Gateshead (the British Athletics warm up event for competitors), pushing her as far as to say that she was in “the best shape of her life”.
However, a misdiagnosis of a ruptured hamstring seemed to dash all hope of even boarding the plane to Tokyo around two months before it was due to begin- before a second opinion just weeks before flying out reclassified the injury as a tear – meaning the hamstring was still attached to an extent, and papering over the injury for the next few weeks was a realistic possibility.
And so, an incredible achievement was still on the cards. A KCL alumna not only had a serious chance of medalling in one of the strongest 100m fields in women’s history (featuring the three Jamaicans of Shericka Jackson, Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah, the latter two being two of the three fastest women in history, and World Championship silver medallist Marie-Josée Ta Lou) – but also in one of, if not the, biggest event in an individual Olympics. *Cliche Klaxon*, but events really don’t get much bigger than this.
However, an underestimation of the extent of the injury, coupled with a short training turnover time due to Covid restrictions in force in Japan, meant that Dina was far from in optimum shape going into the 100m heats before her signature event of the 200m. Even despite this and being in a very strong heat (alongside Thompson-Herah and Swiss finalist Ajla del Ponte), Asher-Smith was just four hundredths of a second off qualifying through to the semis.
A tearful Dina in her post-race trackside interview stole the hearts of the nation. By far her most endearing characteristics are her charm, positivity, optimism and all-round smiley nature, and to see her broken-hearted pulled at every Athletics fan’s heartstrings. The disappointment was not only felt in just in Britain – for the active or even casual Athletics fan, had a fully fit Dina been in the final, it would have made for an even stronger and exciting field in the first Olympics since 2004 and the pre-Bolt era where the Women’s field was much more intriguing than the men. Jamaica went on to complete an historic 1-2-3 for them with Thompson-Herah setting an Olympic Record time of 10.61
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dina subsequently pulled out her strong suit, the 200m too, which seemed the ring the death knell for her Tokyo campaign. However, her bond with her teammates is as strong as oak and pulling out of the 4x100m where the British team had a strong chance of any medal other than gold (Jamaica clearly a shoo-in for it after their individual performances) clearly was a bridge too far for her.
Of course, there was additional intrigue for KCL viewers in the 4x100m relay. After missing out on running in the 4x100m relay final in the 2019 World Champs whilst still in university (despite running a leg for the quartet in the heats), KCL Sociology alumna Imani-Lara Lansiquot was selected for the final quartet this time round after achieving a time of 11.09 seconds earlier in the year (making her the 4th fastest woman in British history). Peckham born and bred, she too is another addition from the Greater London area, and another source of local pride for KCL. Being the university of half of the relay team in the one of the most prestigious Athletics event in the World is, quite simply, historic and humbling. Regardless of the outcome, we could have been very proud.
But with Dina’s heroism, the order was decided going into the finals after a National Record in the heats- Imani would be on the 2nd leg, picking up from the reliable Asha Philip, Dina on the 3rd leg on the bend to minimise injury risk, before 100m finalist Daryll Neita would be on the anchor. After nearly misjudging the first handover, Imani adjusted well to stay in the changeover lanes before it was too late, before accelerating well into the halfway mark. A vintage bend leg from Dina made the Brits neck-and-neck with the Americans before the final leg, where a sturdy run from Neita allowed Team GB to retain their bronze medal.
An absolutely joyous post-race interview followed, including some comments with a perfect degree of charming arrogance from Dina over her bend leg (as the 200m World Champion, she is indeed “one of the best bend runners in the world”). So too was it joyous to see them celebrating with their male counterparts- lifting them up after their mixture of dejection and elation after being pipped to the 100m relay gold by Italy by one hundredth of a second after leading (as well as with the new 1500m silver medallist Laura Muir).
Imani is still only 21. Dina is on the cusp of her prime, and already has a plethora of World Championship and Olympic medals to boot. The Jamaican team is aging. Remarkably, the best is still yet to come, not least in next year’s World Championships in Oregon.
KCL, again, has a lot to be proud of.