Dina Asher-Smith has evoked the spirit of Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s black power salute as she insisted it would be a mistake for Games organisers to sanction any athlete protesting against racism at the Tokyo Olympics.
In words every bit as powerful as the 47 strides she will take at the Olympic Stadium while sprinting towards a 100m gold medal next week, Asher-Smith said she backed athletes taking a knee – before hinting that the International Olympic Committee would struggle to stop people also taking a stand on the podium.
“Protesting and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right,” said Asher-Smith. “If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go? How on earth are you going to enforce that?”
“When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart – and as a black woman you think about racism – I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.”
The 25-year-old said she welcomed the recent changes to the IOC’s Article 50, to permit athletes to quietly protest on the field of play. However under the same rules, doing so on the podium comes with the threat of unspecified sanctions.
But Asher-Smith, who studied history at King’s College, London, before becoming a full-time athlete, questioned how that threat could play out in practice. “If you were to penalise someone, or revoke a medal, how would that go optically?”
Asher-Smith, who begins her quest for three medals over 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay next Friday, went on to draw parallels with the Mexico 1968 Games.
“One of the Olympics’ most iconic moments was the black power salute by Tommie Smith [and John Carlos] way back when,” she said. “That is something people remember the Olympics for. Something they’re very proud to see at the Olympic Games. So to think [the IOC] would suddenly get up and say ‘absolutely not’ … I think they’d be shooting themselves in the foot.”
Asher-Smith also admitted that she has been inspired by the activism of Marcus Rashford and the performances of the England football team at the recent European Championship. And she also committed herself to do more to help out and speak out after her Tokyo adventure is over.
“They are a credit to our nation and are showing a really good sense of moral leadership,” she said. “I think as sports people we are proud, and as a black Brit I was really proud through the Euros. I thought they represented our nation and our community incredibly well.”
Asher-Smith’s increasing willingness to speak about a range of social issues is reflected by her wider confidence going into these Olympics. While some athletes wilt under the highest examination, she usually thrives. Winning 200m gold and 100m silver at the 2019 world championships showed she belongs in the elite of the elite. Now, having recovered from what she calls a “grumpy” hamstring that forced her to miss racing in Gateshead last week, she insists that nothing will scare her in Tokyo.
“At Heathrow, loads of the British Airways people said: ‘Are you nervous?’ I was like: ‘No, what is there to be nervous about?’ Obviously this is on a different scale but I’ve been lining up for races since I was eight years old and I’m very, very good at it. The stakes change, the mechanics change, the precision of it changes, but fundamentally this is something I do week in week out. There’s absolutely nothing to be scared of.”
In terms of fastest times this year, Asher-Smith is ranked ninth over both 100m and 200m while rivals, such as the Jamaicans Elaine Thomson Herah and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, have run significantly faster. But Asher‑Smith dismisses suggestions she might be daunted and, having often raced in bad weather and on slow tracks this year, she believes she has plenty more to show.
“I know what I can do,” she said, adding she was in shape to break her British records. “To me it’s immaterial what people run around you because a championship is a completely different ball game. Everybody has their predictions written down on paper, but we don’t run on paper, we run on the track.”
However, Asher-Smith did admit that she felt sympathy for her American rival Sha’Carri Richardson who was banned from these Games after taking marijuana in competition.
“I feel sorry for her because her mother passed away,” she said. “Rules are rules but the girl was grieving and so my heart goes out to her in that situation. Nobody wants to lose a parent. It’s awful. But hopefully we both have very long careers and it’s not just about one person. There are so many talented women who can run incredibly fast.”
Meanwhile as the clock ticks down to these Games, Asher-Smith is feeling increasingly revved up. “My coach, John Blackie, always tells me to quell my excitement throughout the season until the championships then let it loose,” she said.
“He told me yesterday that I can get excited so you’ll see more energy from me now. I’m really excited to get out there. The Olympics is the pinnacle of our sport. I love a show, I love a stage. And I love putting together a great performance when it matters, when the lights are really on.”
And would anyone really be surprised if Dina delivered again?