|Hosts: Tokyo, Japan Dates: 23 July-8 August|
|Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button and online; Listen on BBC Radio 5 Live, Sports Extra and Sounds; live text and video clips on BBC Sport website and app.|
Dina Asher-Smith has packed a lot into her 25 years.
She is the fastest British woman in history, a world and four-time European champion and an Olympic medallist. She has also adorned the cover of British Vogue, been honoured with a Barbie doll in her likeness, completed a history degree, stood up for women in sport and racial injustice, and become an award-winning writer for her column in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
And, in the next few weeks, she may add Olympic champion to that list.
Before Tokyo 2020, Asher-Smith sat down with friend and Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo for a wide-ranging interview for BBC Sport, covering body positivity, speaking out against injustice, her love of make-up and Drag Race and, of course, the Olympic Games.
On being a Vogue cover star
I was actually really happy Vogue focused on my strength because it is part of the wider body positivity conversation.
I’m not trying to hijack the conversation because I do very much understand that body positivity did start in a very different place to where I am. But I think also that movement speaks to a lot of young, muscular women as well, especially young muscular black women, because the amount of times people go ‘is this a man?’ because you’ve got muscles.
Young girls seem to confide in me. Lots of them turn around and say: ‘I love sports. I’m really good at football, rugby, netball or whatever, but I’m really scared of getting too muscly and not being pretty.’
I’m like: ‘No, you chase your dreams. You do what you want to do on this earth. You do whatever you want to do with your God-given talents, and nobody should be able to tell you or make you feel like you can’t do something with your own body.’
If you want to do sports and go out there and be excellent, that does include being strong. I could never, ever run the times that I do, I could never do the rounds of competitions, I could never be the level of athlete that I am, without being very strong, and I’m very proud of that.
I was so grateful that Vogue amplified that and showed that, because particularly in spaces where sportswomen aren’t commonly found, our body type is seen as an anomaly and then people don’t know what to think of it. Then the images that the young girls receive sometimes can be negative about being muscular and strong and it does turn a lot of young women off doing sport.
I do remember saying to Vogue: ‘Please can you make sure this is a muscular, strong shoot?’
I was really happy to see the styling was a lot about skin and strength and power. I was so happy we were able to put that across because I think it’s really important for young women to see strong women in the public eye, because that is a body type that is womanly, that is feminine, that is part of your life and your narrative as well.
I wore my natural hair when I was in that shoot, because I don’t want people to feel like their hair, the way it grows out of their head, isn’t suitable. You should be able to wake up and do whatever you fancy with your hair, and be fine in a workplace, be fine and seen as presentable or whatever you want.
As black women and as dark-skinned black women, we shouldn’t have to jump through all these hurdles to feel seen, validated or accepted. So if by being me in the public eye I can help alleviate some of those things for many women who would have been in the same position as me, then so be it.
I think there are people who don’t understand why I do it like that, because most people are like ‘oh are you trying to be a model now?’ and I’m absolutely not.
I’m doing it to change the conversation and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a successful woman, what it means to be a powerful woman.
On being recognised
It’s been amazing, in a way, that so many people want to always say congratulations on the street, and that’s been something that I just didn’t think I was ever going to be in a position to be in.
It’s definitely taken some getting used to. I love it because everybody’s so polite and nice, but on a real human level – you know when you’re little and you have your life plan – I just never thought that I was going to be recognised.
It’s not that I don’t like it, but it’s taken a bit of adjusting to because naturally I’m quite reserved.
I was talking to a psychologist about this the other day and she said why it’s odd for me is because I’m very good at compartmentalising, and that’s probably why I’m good at what I do. I tend to put myself in different boxes, so I have Dina at work, Dina at training, Dina on a photoshoot, Dina at home, Dina with friends. I’m all the same person, but I very much compartmentalise and it’s how I process.
I’m always busy. It’s how I stay on top of things. I can put one thing to the side, focus on another, and then switch back again. It’s one of the skills I’m quite good at. But she’s like: ‘You have to remember that sometimes those boxes cross over.’ When she put it like that, I was like: ‘I get it now.’
It’s something to be really, really proud of.
That’s why I’m so fortunate to be in this industry doing what I do, and also why I say I honestly don’t know what I can achieve. Not because I don’t believe in myself, but the opposite. I’ve already surpassed so many of my own expectations of myself.
But it’s definitely something I’m proud of, especially when you get to interact with people and they explain sporting moments and things that you’ve done or said, or articles that you’ve written or been quoted in, that really resonated with them. That’s something that is really nice, and fulfilling as well, because that’s another side of the whole thing. It’s another side of not only giving back, but standing up for what you believe in.
That, I think, is essential – especially in the times we are in.
On sportspeople being told to ‘stick to sport’
I think people underestimate how hard it is for people to see all of this, and experience all of this… it’s hard to put into words because when people do say stuff like ‘keep it out of sport’, it’s like people don’t see you.
So you want us to just entertain you, but if we’re going through something and we see pain and we see injustice and we see things that aren’t right, you want us to pretend it wasn’t happening and continue to just dance and entertain you and not bring it up? You really don’t care. You don’t even pretend to care.
That’s basically what it is. If people stand up and say something, we’re not saying it for a joke. It’s because we’re standing up against injustice.
It’s about using our platform to raise awareness for something that is close to our hearts, or even half the time we’re using our voices when we know people who are going through it behind the scenes but they’re not in a position to speak up on it.
When people tell you to stop, it’s like: ‘Oh, you’re not even willing to listen. You really just want us to entertain you and go home, and you want to turn off the TV and ignore the fact that these people are suffering. Or if it’s something like Marcus Rashford, that kids can’t eat during a pandemic because parents have lost their jobs or schools aren’t open.’
I think the most offensive one is when people are disrespectful about people taking the knee. I really find it wholly disrespectful and I remember somebody said it was gesture politics. I remember being so upset that I shut my phone… ‘enough internet for today’.
It’s not, really, and even if you want to use that term there are lots of things that we show solidarity to by doing a collective symbol, a collective gesture to show respect. It’s why we clapped for the NHS over lockdown. It’s why the rainbow flag is Pride. It’s why there’s a poppy. In this world, in the western world at least, this is how we show our solidarity.
This is a version of that, but the fact this is the one that people choose to rail against shows us exactly where we are. I think that’s what the hardest thing is.
It’s very, very hurtful that people that don’t live in our shoes can’t see the bigger picture. For us, it’s not an isolated event. It’s not one thing that they’re against. It’s a series. It’s the Windrush scandal, it’s being against the knee, it’s harsher penalties for one thing. It’s a continuum.
When you try and bring light to those things, people are just being like ‘we literally don’t want to see this’ but I know if I was to hold a Pride flag it would be applauded. And quite rightly, don’t get me wrong, quite rightly. It’s just horrible that people are showing their colours. They’re showing exactly where they stand on racism.
Can I say I’m surprised? No.
I remember studying this in uni, when people polarise for polarising’s sake.
If people actually heard the root of what we’re saying, they might still agree or disagree, but they’ll find themselves on far more similar ground than they would when something has been sensationalised.
Sensationalising and polarising stuff, it’s an economy. It’s what keeps people going. It’s what keeps people arguing. It’s a whole economy in itself. I think that is really sad as well.
Personally, do I care? Obviously I care if people take my words out of context because it’s incredibly disrespectful, and I know that fear is exactly why people sometimes don’t open their mouths.
People are scared because people are determined to misrepresent what they say. People will read it, they’ll receive it and they’ll know exactly what they mean – they might even agree – but they’ll be like: ‘Anyway, this could be juicy.’ And then next thing, that person’s gone off social media.
I know a lot of people, particularly in the industry that I’m in, particularly high-profile figures, that are scared to turn around and be like ‘I stand up for this’ because the fallout has potential to be career-destroying, quite frankly. That’s really scary.
On not knowing what she can achieve
Sometimes people are so disappointed because they always ask me, ‘what time are you going to run?’ and I’m like: ‘I don’t know.’
I don’t always get to explain it because I’ll always give my honest answer to everything and sometimes it’s like: ‘I don’t know, I don’t think times.’ And that, as a deadpan, I do understand that can be quite ‘oh, OK’ for journalists.
I don’t think times because hand on heart, and this is not gushy, did the little baby Dina expect that I would ever be a world champion? No. Did I expect that I would be a four-time European champion? No. Did I expect that I would have all these titles? No. Did I want them? 100% yes, but in track and field the stakes are so high. There are so many people in the sport. It’s not a sport where if a team wins, 11 people win.
There’s one winner. Just one. Out of how many million people compete across the world, there is one.
I just hand on heart never saw those things coming for me. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t believe in myself. I believed that I could potentially be one of the best in the world, but I never concretely saw that. I never saw myself running the times that I associated with some of the fastest women in history.
But now I’m here, I’m like, ‘just stop putting bets on’ because clearly your own predictions and your body, they’re not quite in sync. Your body can do whatever it wants to do, so I just try not to limit it. I just try and put the practices in place that get the most out of what I have to give.
On her love of make-up and Drag Race
It’s something that I really discovered about myself after uni. I knew it, but I think it was deep down because it was covered by the mounds of uni work and reading and books. I really did discover my love for fashion, beauty, make-up, and just self-expression of yourself and your character on the outside.
I really think that’s beautiful to interact with. I love make-up. I love a product or two. I’ve definitely been ordering copious amounts of eyeshadow for the Olympics.
My mum is like: ‘Why do you need even more?’ I’m getting more and more delivered to my house, she’s like: ‘What is this? Don’t tell me it’s more eyeshadow.’ I’m like: ‘Yes it is!’
I absolutely love Drag Race. I actually think that’s what’s inspired me to be more creative with my make-up as well. I love that culture. I think it’s a beautiful culture. It’s full of vibrancy, expression, authenticity in the most creative and free way.
I’m here for anything that allows people to be their freest and most authentic, most vibrant self because in my humble opinion I do think being vibrant and being free to be yourself, that’s a key component to living a great life.
Any culture that really goes into that, I’m going to be a fan.
On being made into a Barbie doll
I was actually surprisingly emotional about it. But I think this is also part of the conversation we are having, particularly for me about skin tone. The idea that a doll you play with when you’re younger now wants to kind of immortalise you is crazy in itself.
It’s one of those 360s, and you sit there and you’re like: ‘Wow, my younger self would be so happy with me.’
I was sitting at my dining table when my agent left me a voice note and he was like: ‘I’ve got this request. This, this, this.’ He ran through a long list, and last he was like: ‘Oh and Barbie want to make you a doll.’ I was like: ‘Wait, what?!’
For me, particularly when I saw it and saw that it genuinely looked like me, I really felt so touched because I think it also struck me how few dolls I played with when I was younger looked like me.
On her pre-race routine
I dance a lot when I’m getting changed.
I’m good at controlling my energy. My coach taught me how to do it, because he’s known me since I was eight years old, and I am the most excitable person.
I get excited over stupid stuff, so he’s taught me how to harness it and control it and then release it when I need to.
Normally, I’m just on an even keel and then when I start getting changed and doing my make-up, I put on some music and this is the time that I can start to let all the energy out.
That’s the start of my process, when I’m gradually starting to get more and more excited, more and more adrenaline rushing. For me, that includes dancing.
But that’s probably only if it’s a Diamond League race or a one-off race or an early round race. If it’s the end of the championships and I’m exhausted, I’m not dancing.
Everybody has a different race-day model but I’m there to enjoy it. I’m there to put together my best performance, put forward my best self and my favourite self. And that, for me, includes Caribbean music.
My thing is I’ll dance, and then I run out of time, so I’m texting my coach like: ‘Oh my God, I’m coming. Just get on the bus without me.’
But I also do plan it in. I always schedule myself to go on the bus before the last one I can catch. I know myself.
On her role models
I have a few. I’ve got a set of nails for the Olympics that have my role models’ names painted on them.
I was thinking about what nails to do for the Olympics and I got some press-ons. Hopefully they’ll stay – if any of you see me with four nails, just pretend it didn’t happen, don’t acknowledge it, because I’ll be as annoyed about it as you are.
I’ve obviously got a few role models but the one that pops to mind right at the beginning is Allyson Felix.
She’s American, the queen of track and field, the most decorated track and field athlete of all time, gazillions of World Championship golds, gazillions of Olympic golds. She’s just phenomenal.
I think within the track world, she is honestly like complete royalty. She’s done everything there is to do from when she was a teenager, and now she’s got a child and she’s still making teams, probably still going to become an Olympic champion in something.
Obviously Jessica Ennis-Hill is incredible for so many reasons – winner of a home Olympic Games, her first Olympic Games, which from an athlete’s perspective is crazy because everybody says at your first Olympics you spend the whole time being like: ‘Oh my God I’ve accomplished my dream.’
On carrying people’s pride
I love it. I think people talk about it as pressure. How do you carry it? How do you shoulder it? Is it a weight or a burden or whatever?
No. Are you crazy? This is amazing.
You can’t forget that what I do is fundamentally entertainment. And that’s not decrying my own effort, because obviously this is my lifestyle. But at the end of the day, it’s a race. If I win, fantastic. Everybody’s happy. If I don’t, there’s always another one. For me, this is just so much fun, and so amazing that so many people want you to win.
The idea that it’s pressure or a burden, I’m like: ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ This is literally what we’re here for. I’m here to win. Besides all the hard work and the trying my best since I was eight years old, we’re here to ignite a feeling in somebody, make them excited, make them proud, make them scream, make them cry, give them drama, give them glitz, glamour, sparkle. It’s part of it.
On no crowds in Tokyo
We just have to remember that we are in a pandemic. I know in lots of countries, life feels almost back to normal.
But a lot of places in the world are at different places to us, and the national feeling is very different. It’s important that when we’re in each country, we have to be respectful to not only the situation of the pandemic in that country, but also the national sentiment.
At the end of the day, I’m very grateful that Japan is hosting the Olympic Games, and if it means we’ve got to have no spectators then unfortunately that’s the way the Japanese government and Japanese people are going to have it, then so be it. We are guests in their country.
In an ideal world, it would be full. But at the same time, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have had a pandemic. It’s just part of the times that we’re in.
On unwinding after the Olympics
We have been working for this Olympic cycle for five years. Not four.
I am going to vanish for a very certain period of time, live my best life – best in capital letters, bold, italic, underlined – and then get ready for next year which is World Champs, Commonwealth Games, Europeans, loads of stuff.
But I will be living my best life, in every sense of the word.
On her motivation
I want to win. It’s very, very simple. I want to win. I want to be the best. I know that I’m talented enough to do it.
That’s something that will keep me motivated not just this year, but throughout the rest of my career.