Gemili is seconds away from 100m final… just months after hanging up his football boots
21:33 GMT, 21 July 2012
When Adam Gemili settles into his blocks for the start of the gladiatorial contest that is the men's Olympic 100m, he will complete an extraordinary journey.
For in just eight months, the teenager from Dartford, in Kent, will have gone from playing football before a few hundred people in the Blue Square Bet South league to running in the blue riband event of the London Olympics in front of a capacity crowd of 80,000 people – and a worldwide television audience that could top the billion mark.
Fast show Adam Gemili wins men's 100 metres final at the World Junior Championships
Should Gemili go all the way to the final on Sunday August 5, he can expect to line up in the Olympic Stadium against some of the greatest names in athletics. But if the thought of running against defending champion Usain Bolt, world champion Yohan Blake and American No 1 Tyson Gay sounds like a daunting prospect, Gemili is intent on taking it all in his stride.
'I'm just going there to enjoy myself,' he said. 'Hopefully, I can run my quickest time ever but the main thing is just to savour every moment of it. I know I'll never get the opportunity to go to a home Olympics again. I want to make the most of it.'
He has certainly not been slow in making the most of his extraordinary talent in the short time he has devoted to sprinting since putting his football career on ice in January to concentrate on the track.
Teenage kicks: Gemili playing football with Dagenham and Redbridge youth team
Eleven days ago, he confirmed his status as the quickest teenager on the planet by claiming the 100m world junior title in Barcelona in a championship record time of 10.05sec. In doing so, he overtook Dwain Chambers as Britain's fastest ever junior – and made the debate around his tainted predecessor's right to run in the Games following his two-year doping ban seem wholly irrelevant.
Gemili's jet-propelled Gemili's jet-propelled progress has seen him heralded as Britain's most exciting sprint prospect in years and potentially the country's first 100m Olympic finalist since Chambers finished fourth in Sydney 12 years ago. After Gemili's triumph in Barcelona, Gay, a triple world champion, claimed the young Briton was destined to become 'one of the greatest sprinters of all time' and had every chance of putting himself among distinguished company in London's 100m final.
Former Olympic sprint champion Maurice Greene agreed, as does Darren Campbell, a member of Britain's gold medal-winning sprint relay team at the Athens Olympics.
'Of all the young talent I've seen coming through over the years this guy has a special pedigree,' said Campbell. '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 and he nailed the world juniors. Now he can just enjoy his first Olympics with no pressure. He could make the final, although he may have to run under 10 seconds to do so. If not, he will be a serious contender by the 2016 Games in Rio.'
Yet it was only two years ago that Gemili turned up at the English Schools Athletics Championships and, despite wearing trainers because he had no spikes to run in, produced a performance that was to change his life.
'I'd started running for my school just for fun really,' said the footballloving Gemili. 'I went along to the English Schools to see what would happen and I ended up coming second. I was wearing trainers because I didn't even have a pair of spikes.
'Everyone in the Kent team used to tease me about it 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. I just ran the race and ended up with a time of 10.99, which was the first time I'd broken 11 seconds.'
A career on the track beckoned but
Gemili still harboured dreams of making it big in football. It was an
ambition the Dartford Grammar Schoolboy – the son of a Moroccan father
and Iranian mother – had held since he joined Chelsea's youth team at
the age of eight. He stayed for seven years before leaving to
concentrate on his education. Later he joined Reading for a year and had
just parted company with them in 2009 when teacher Gary Jones entered
him in the Kent Schools Athletics Championships.
Olympic champion: Usain Bolt
I didn't ask whether he wanted to run,' recalled Jones. 'It was
difficult to get Adam to commit to athletics because football was always
taking up most of his time. But when he left Reading, I knew that it
was decision time and thought, “Let's just see if he fancies doing it
and see what happens”. He ended up running 11.09sec, which was good
enough to get into the English Schools.'
His performance there encouraged him
to invest in some proper spikes and last year he took silver at the
European Youth Athletics Championships in Estonia in 10.23sec. But the
lure of football was still strong, even if Gemili's trajectory in the
game was far from heading for the glittering heights.
He joined League Two side Dagenham and Redbridge as a defender and
they, in turn, sent him out on loan to play alongside John Terry's older
brother, Paul, at Blue Square Bet South side Thurrock.
Club secretary Mark Southgate recalls one of his last games for the club. 'A big centre-half from Tonbridge Angels took him out in the first minute in front of a crowd of 358. Not exactly great preparation for the Olympics,' said Southgate.
'He didn't play for us for four weeks, lost his place in the team and Dagenham didn't want him back. He was at a loose end, and I think that's why he took up athletics a bit more.
'He is a very nice lad, very humble. When he came to us we knew he had come second in the European juniors but he didn't seem to have any intention of doing athletics as a career. If he hadn't been injured, he'd probably still be playing for Thurrock, not going to the Olympic Games.'
Gemili's coach, Michael Afilaka, finally persuaded the teenager to hang up his football boots in January and the benefit of full-time athletics training saw Gemili record a personal best of 10.08sec at the start of June. Second place in the UK trials a few weeks later confirmed that he will be on the start line at London 2012.
'It's been a surreal few weeks,' said Gemili. 'When I was younger, I wasn't really that into athletics but since I've started taking it more seriously, I've done a lot of research because I like to know my sport really well.
'And to hear what people like Maurice Greene and Tyson Gay have been saying about me really is unbelievable.' His old schoolteacher, Gary Jones, is confident that Gemili will not be overawed by the occasion in the Olympic Stadium. 'He's a very laid-back and chilled out character so I'm sure he will take it all in his stride,' he said.
Gemili's parents, Az and Sacha, plan to be in the Olympic Stadium to see their son compete. Sacha said: 'When he did the egg-and-spoon race at primary school I was as excited as I was at the world juniors. I'm so happy for my son and I will be there in the Olympic Stadium just screaming my head off for him.'
The atmosphere will be a long way from the 524 seats in the main stand at Thurrock's Ship Lane ground but with the confidence gained from victory in Barcelona, there is every chance that Gemili could become the youngest man to break the 10 seconds barrier for the 100m.
'When I look back on the last two years it's amazing how far I have come,' he said. 'I might never have continued with athletics if it hadn't gone so well. I might just have thought, “Oh well, I'm not good enough for this” and gone back to playing football.'
Whatever happens in the Olympic Stadium, football's loss is surely Team GB's gain.