Mike Rowbottom: Don't listen to the hype, Gemili – but you could be the most sensational runner ever!!!
Monday, 16 July 2012
If Usain Bolt, for instance, had developed his extraordinary physique and talent in the long jump – as he probably could to huge effect – rather than the sprints, would he have achieved such a level of worldwide renown? Answer: no.
Fairly or unfairly, but indisputably historically, the 100m and the 1500m have been known as the blue riband events of the Olympic programme. And so when Britain finds itself with a rising talent within sprinting there is a natural heightening of interest – the combination of Briton and 100m means the story becomes sexy enough to start moving into column inches – either print or digital – that would otherwise belong to football coverage.
Were Gemili (pictured below) to deliver an ideal media package, he would step up sensationally to win the Olympic 100m on home soil, leaving a shocked Bolt and Yohan Blake in his wake, before deciding he had been too hasty in letting his football dreams go following his experience in the Chelsea youth set-up to the more basic environment of Dagenham & Redbridge and returning to his first love just in time to become a part of the England team that lifts the World Cup in Rio's Maracana Stadium 48 years after the fabled victory at Wembley Stadium.
As it is, the British media will have to content itself with the story of a startlingly talented young athlete who, as the newly appointed British athletics team captain Dai Greene (pictured below) said earlier this week, possibly doesn't even realise the magnitude of what he has achieved this season as he has earned qualification to the Olympics and a global junior title, lowering his personal best to 10.08sec and then 10.05 in the process.
Asked if he had won the world junior title, Greene – who took the senior world 400m hurdles gold in Daegu last season and looks hugely likely to be on the Olympic podium in London – smiled and shook his head. "I wasn't good enough to qualify, never mind win it," he said.
So in Gemili, British athletics has a fresh and invigorating talent. But British athletics has been here before. In 1998 there were excitable interviews on the BBC live news bulletin with the young man who had just indicated, apparently, that he was the New Linford Christie by winning the world junior 100 and 200m titles – Christian Malcolm.
Malcolm was – and is – a sublime sprinter who has had a terrific career, but in individual terms his greatest tangible rewards have been Commonwealth silver and bronze, and fifth place in the Olympic final. He has broken neither 10 seconds for the 100m nor 20 seconds for the 200m.
Two years later Mark Lewis-Francis, an outstanding prospect from Darlaston in the Black Country, decided to concentrate on the world juniors rather than the Sydney Olympics and his ambition was rewarded with the 100m title. But Lewis-Francis, despite anchoring the British sprint relay team to Olympic gold in 2004, has not gone on to achieve in individual terms what that early success pointed towards, despite his recent resurgence to take Commonwealth and European silver medals.
In 2005 it was the affable Harry Aikines-Aryeetey who was exciting home ambitions as he earned the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award having become the first athlete to win the world youth 100 and 200m titles. A year later he emulated Malcolm and Lewis-Francis by taking the world 100m junior title. But he too has found it hard to translate all that junior talent to the senior ranks.
Since Gemili arrived on the radar this season, both Bolt and – this week – Tyson Gay (pictured below) – that is, the fastest and second fastest 100m runners ever to set foot on the track – have praised him in the media. But only because they have been asked about him and responded politely.
Bolt's comments came last month at a press conference on the eve of his appearance in the Oslo Diamond League meeting. He was judicious and sensible in speaking about the difficulties of bridging the gap between junior and senior achievement. As a former world junior 100m champion himself – something he became aged 15 – he had experienced the awkwardness himself. But it didn't seem that he knew Gemili – why would he? This was just someone who had run what, in world terms, is a relatively slow time of 10.08.
Gay, speaking the day before he won Friday's 100m in the Samsung Diamond League meeting at Crystal Palace, clearly did know all about Gemili having tweeted approvingly following the youngster's midweek victory in Barcelona.
The quietly spoken American clearly meant him well as he advised him: "Don't listen to all the hype."
But not 30 seconds earlier, having described Gemili's Barcelona performance as "phenomenal", Gay had commented: "I think he's going to be one of the greatest sprinters of all time, watching that race. He done it at the big show and that's where it counts."
Now that is hype.
Asked how fast he had run as an 18-year-old, Gay responded with a smile: "10.46".
So let's just recap here. Dai Greene and Tyson Gay, both with world titles to their credit, were no great shakes as teenagers.
With the best will in the world – and there is a lot of it out there on his behalf – Gemili is not yet a world beater, and may never be.
As Greene added this week: "He's had a fantastic year. Regardless of what happens at the Olympics he's already exceeded expectation, I think." Which is true and sensible and quite enough for now.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.