The mixed relays may have finished last weekend, but what a lot of conflicting emotions for the eight British sprinters who won medals in the 4x100m on Friday night.
The men won the silver behind Italy, the women the bronze behind Jamaica and the United States, and between them the British athletes ran the gamut from joy to frustration, anger and regret. Dina Asher-Smith was among the disappointed, she had hoped to win more than one bronze at these Games. It was not her injured hamstring that was nagging at her, but the sense that the relay team should have done better.
“I’ve mixed emotions,” Asher-Smith said, “because I’m a competitor I think: ‘Ah I could have done this and that, picked up a 10th [of a second] here and a 10th there, and we could have pushed for a different medal.”
It is true that their changeovers were pretty sloppy, and they were perilously close to being disqualified. But even had they got them spot-on they would have struggled to get close to a Jamaican team that included two of the greatest female sprinters in history, Elaine Thompson-Herah, who has now won her fifth gold, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who has won her third.
When Asher-Smith reflected on what she had been through these past few weeks, she was a little more forgiving. “I was on crutches six weeks ago, there was a less than 10% chance I was going to be here in Tokyo, so to come away with a medal is honestly something I couldn’t have contemplated six weeks ago,” she said. “Seven weeks ago, yes, absolutely, but six weeks ago, no, not at all.”
Asher-Smith said all she needed was a little more time. “Another week, another two weeks, and I will literally be back to my normal speed. Obviously I’m moving faster now than I was last week but that’s always how the recovery from these things goes, every day there is progress. I’ve seen it physically with my hamstring, but also with my form, I’ve been improving every day. I knew we had another week until the relay, so I just trained, trained, and trained as hard as possible in the time I had.”
Her three teammates – Daryll Neita, Asha Philip and Imani-Lara Lansiquot – were all delighted with their medals, and did their best to persuade Asher-Smith to be, too.
If the extra week Asher-Smith needed seems a small margin, it was an eternity compared to the gap between the men’s team and the gold medal in their race. With the US out in the heats, it was wide open, and the first three runners, CJ Ujah, Zharnel Hughes and Richard Kilty, earned the fourth, Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake, a lead of a metre or so over the field. He was still in front five metres from the line, the gold medal right there for the taking, but he was tightening up, and away on his right Italy’s Filippo Tortu was closing fast. Tortu caught Mitchell-Blake right on the line and beat him with a dip. There was a single hundredth of a second between them.
Mitchell-Blake was distraught. “The gold was in touching distance, the guys gave me a lead, which is all I could ask for, and I wasn’t able to hold on,” he said. “So there was that bittersweet moment of anger and frustration, knowing that you were a hundredth of a second away from an Olympic gold medal. I dare you all to get your phone out and try to start and stop your watch on one hundredth. You can’t do it. And that’s how close we were.”
The 27-year-old said he would use the disappointment as “fuel for going forward” in the three years ahead of the Paris Games. “We want to get Olympic gold,” he said. They will be lucky if they ever get a better chance.
Hughes was struggling a bit, too. He seemed to still be suffering from the shock of being disqualified from the 100m final. “Every day I’ve been getting flashbacks to what happened,” he said. The silver was some consolation. “I needed to gather myself and I did that, I came out composed and relaxed, and now I’m just happy to be walking away from this Olympic Games with a medal around my neck. And thanks to these fellas, too – they’ve been pushing me from the night I got in, they’ve helped me out at a really hard time.”
You can imagine Kilty, in particular, had a galvanizing effect. Because he, for one, was just unequivocally delighted with what they had done. “Listen if when I was 10 years old and someone said: ‘You’re going to get an Olympic medal with your friends in Tokyo,’ I would have snatched your hand off,” Kilty said. “And when I’m 50 and I’m fat looking back at my career I will say this was one of the best nights of my life.”
They hadn’t been beaten by a better team, exactly, Kilty reckoned, but by a country who were on a streak of form that included, as Mitchell-Blake put it “Eurovision, the Euros, the men’s 100m and now the 4x100m”.
Kilty said: “Listen, in the history of mankind this is Italy’s biggest year ever. Forget the Roman Empire and all that nonsense, this is as big as it gets for them. So they’d better soak it in because they’ve conquered the world this year. Maybe God was looking over them, because I don’t know where they dragged that race from – but we’re better than them, and we’ll beat them next year. But we’ll let them have it this time.”