Olympics: Britain's best sprint hope is a new kid on the block

Adam Gemili's rise is a result not only of natural talent but also the work ethic ingrained in him through his Arabic background, his mother tells Laura Collins.

Adam Gemili celebrates his win in the 100 metres final at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona last month. David Ramos / Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

Adam Gemili's rise to being Britain's great sprint hope within just two years of taking up running is a result not only of natural talent but also the work ethic ingrained in him through his Arabic background, his mother tells Laura Collins.

Tomorrow morning Adam Gemili will take his place in the starting blocks for the preliminary rounds of the men's Olympic 100m sprint - a race where legends are made and records broken.

He will be watched by a crowd of 80,000 in the Olympic Stadium and millions more on television around the world. Yet this time last year he had only just invested in a decent pair of running spikes. And eight months ago his focus was on playing football in the Blue Square Bet South league.

Gemili's rise to Olympic stature is extraordinary. It has seen him heralded as Britain's most exciting sprint prospect in years. Little wonder that the British public have got behind the 18-year-old from Dartford, Kent.

But his support and his heritage stretches far beyond British shores.

The son of an Iranian mother and Moroccan father, in recent weeks he has been touched and amazed to find himself the darling of the Moroccan and Iranian press and the recipient of good luck wishes from across the Arab world.

Speaking exclusively to The National, his mother, Sacha, said: "Adam is proud to be British and there was never any doubt in his mind that he would run for Team GB. But he is also extremely proud of his Arabic heritage and to be half Iranian, half Moroccan.

"He's had the influence of those backgrounds and we've always encouraged that. We're all really touched by the support that has come from Iran and Morocco. We even had someone call from the office of the Emir of Kuwait and wish him well.

"He's running for Britain but he said to me, 'Mum I'm really proud of our background'."

Certainly Gemili has attributed his success to the influence of his parents, whose work ethic and focus on education is what ultimately convinced him to pass up the offer of a football contract in December and focus instead on study and athletics.

Sacha said: "In December he was offered a football contract and we could have said yes, but I felt he'd just picked up running as a hobby. Football is a full-time job and I wanted him to carry on with his education.

"I said, 'Why don't you consider taking a year out, explore athletics, see where it takes you?' Eight months later, he's in the Olympics."

Gemili's gift first became apparent two years ago when he turned up at the English Schools Athletics Championships and, despite having no spikes and no real training, came second in the 100m, running 10.99 seconds.

Recalling that race, Gemili has said: "Everyone in the Kent team used to tease me about wearing trainers and I remember people looking at me before the race, doing my football warm-ups on the side of the track. About 10 minutes before the race, one of the coaches took me to the side and taught me how to get out of the blocks properly."

According to Sacha: "Adam was always football mad. Ask me anything about football and I could tell you because that's what it was all about for so long. But athletics, I'm not really savvy about."

Running was only ever, and only recently, a hobby to Gemili. For a long time his ambitions lay in football. At seven he joined Chelsea's youth team, staying for seven years before leaving to concentrate on his education.

Later he joined Reading for a year, and when he left one of his teachers at Dartford Grammar entered him in the Kent Schools Athletics Championships. He ended up running fast enough to qualify for the English Schools team.

But it was only in January that his current coach, and his mother, persuaded him to hang up his football boots and focus on his athletics training, with extraordinary results.

Last month he won the 100m at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona in a championship record time of 10.05 seconds.

Speaking about Gemili recently, the former Olympic sprinter Maurice Greene said: "Of all the young talent I've seen coming through over the years, this guy has a special pedigree.

"He won't be at his best until he's 26, in time for the 2020 Olympics, but he's no flash in the pan."

Gemili's mother echoed the sentiment: "We know he's got another 10 years to peak. His father and I are realistic about these Olympics. He's going to be running against the top men in the world. We've told him to just get on the starting block and enjoy yourself, and to just not get beaten by too much."

Although his father is fasting for Ramadan, Gemili is not, his mother said. "There's no way he could fast and perform and we would never dream of imposing that.

"We have brought him up to make his own choices and to know right from wrong and to do his best."

It is, one suspects, a characteristically level-headed approach from Sacha, who admitted to feeling just as excited watching her son run the egg-and-spoon race at primary school as winning the world juniors last month, and who is clearly just as proud of his GCSE results as his Olympic qualification.

"Education is so important. He's got 16 GCSEs, all A grades and A* apart from drama - he got a B for that.

"He's just finished his Sport Science A Level, which is a two-year diploma, and the college telephoned to tell me he's passed with what they think is the highest mark."

Both Sacha, who is in sales and marketing, and her businessman husband, who asked not to be named, prefer to remain in the background, placing the emphasis on their son. It is enough for them that their influence is clear in his achievements.

The theme of this year's Games is "Inspiring a generation", and that, Sacha said, is what she hopes her son's story and his heritage might do.

"Adam's father is an Arab who came to this country and achieved. Our family shows that if you put in the hard work you can achieve," she said.

"Our family is so diverse but has the values from all our different heritages. I think the Arabic heritage places such importance on family and the support of family.

"If Adam makes it to the final it will be wonderful because all the boys and girls in the western world and the Arabic world will be able to look at him and say, 'Maybe I can do that'."