Having started to write himself off, the 2017 world champion explains why he feels ready to be a contender again and why he wants to give athletes a bigger say in their sport
This is the really hard part. That point in the year when the groundwork is being laid and an athlete’s agenda is filled with the necessary evil of the unvarnished hard graft that leaves bodies battered and energy drained.
“You wake up tired, you go training, you come home, you recover – you’re just stuck in that cycle,” says Adam Gemili. “It’s the hardest part of the sport. This is the part that no one really sees but it means the most. If you don’t do this right, it can really mess up your whole year.”
He may be weary, but the 30-year-old could not be happier. After the mental and physical torment of the past three years, to be in the thick of winter training with motivation restored and his own personal ship steadied feels priceless. Gemili just wants to give himself a chance. He can’t shake the belief that, should the stars align, he can be a contender on the world stage once again.
It helps that the outside noise has quietened. It was at last year’s British Indoor Championships that the 4x100m world champion revealed he had almost quit athletics and explored trying to play professional football (he used to be part of Chelsea’s academy system). The reason was the controversy he found himself embroiled in around his then coach, Rana Reider, who was placed under investigation for sexual misconduct. The American is free to coach but is currently under a 12-month probation for a relationship that “presented a power imbalance” with one of his athletes. He was not found to be in violation of any other misconduct claims.
Gemili didn’t make it past the 200m heats at the World Championships in Oregon, citing the “bad press” at the time, and while fellow training partners such as Daryll Neita had left Reider’s Florida-based group almost immediately, Gemili only departed in August of 2022, almost a year after being told to cut ties by UK Athletics.
“That situation has cleared up now but, mentally, I wasn’t prepared for any of that,” he admits of the circumstances which had wide-reaching consequences for him. “I’ve always been happy-go-lucky and I’d never had a panic attack before, I’d never had an anxiety attack. I was barely able to do one session a week so the fact that I even got through that year, it was insane. We had so much crap to deal with.
“You do think about certain things and maybe I should have come home earlier, maybe I shouldn’t have been as loyal. But you live and die by your decisions. I can’t change them now and I don’t like to think of ‘what if I’d done this?’ You have to always look forward and learn from your mistakes, because you don’t learn from success.”
During that period, Gemili had lost direction and put on weight. His was not a positive world.
“I was writing myself off,” he says. “Online there are a lot of fans that have really supported me but you sometimes get people that don’t and in more recent years that number has grown. In my head, I started to doubt my own ability and began to think: ‘What if they’re right? What if it’s my time to go?’”
Change has worked wonders, though. He now trains and lives in Italy, working under Marco Airale whose training group features a large British contingent including Neita, Reece Prescod, Amy Hunt and Gemili’s housemate Jeremiah Azu. Even at a low ebb, the Blackheath and Bromley athlete could still sense potential in himself.
“I saw what I was able to do when I was in that bad way and I thought: ‘When I’m mentally good, and I’m back to how I used to be where I’m not scared of anyone, I just go out there and I run my own race I will get the results I deserve’,” he adds.
“When I joined Marco, he said to me: ‘I can see you’re physically not where you need to be and mentally not where you need to be. This is not going to just take a few months or one year’. He said: ‘Give me two seasons going into the Olympic Games. The first year, if we get any good results, it’s a bonus. But judge me now on this coming year’. We’re both so locked in and focused on the goal. This is the year now where it matters.
“There are fantastic athletes in the group and it’s so good to be around. I feel like I bring a lot of experience and I can help a lot of the younger guys, especially technically if I see something I can say ‘maybe to try this’ or ‘maybe think of this cue’ – things that helped me when I was that age and when I was coming into the sport.
“My first year in the sport I got to train with Jeanette Kwakye and at the time she was the only female Olympic finalist for GB ever in the 100m and she taught me so much – the kind of things that might not mean a lot to the athletes now but, when they get a bit older and think about it, it will help them a lot, so I try and play that role.”
While he still holds on-track ambitions, Gemili is indeed looking outside of himself. He is in his final year of eight serving on the UKA Athletes’ Commission and has done a similar spell with the British Olympic Association. Just recently, he was voted to serve on the World Athletics equivalent.
He is an athlete who thinks a lot about his sport. When asked what he would change about it if he were in charge, he exhales deeply. “That’s a big question,” he says but it doesn’t take long until he finds his rhythm.
“When I first came into the sport, I got to go to a home Olympics [London 2012] and I thought: ‘Wow, this is what it’s going to be like every champs. This sport is amazing and it’s just going to continue to grow in popularity’ but it just didn’t.
“I understand our sport gets funding from UK Sport and we’re judged on medals at the top level and that decides how much funding we get for the next Olympic cycle so that’s where a lot of the attention goes. But there’s been a lack of push towards the grassroots, the foundations, these young athletes and the opportunities they get. That’s what I would like to see different, first and foremost.
“I also believe the athletes are at the bottom of the pecking order. Unless you’re in that top one per cent, it’s seen as: ‘If you don’t want to do that, or if you don’t want to run here, if you don’t want to accept that contract, someone else will and it is what it is’.
“The people running the sport, a lot of them are the sponsors and the sponsors hold a lot of the cards and make a lot of the decisions. Obviously, they’re only going to do what benefits them as a company and a business.
“Eventually I’d like to see it change where a lot more power is given back to the athletes and they have more say.”
He adds: “From what I’ve seen the top, top athletes are okay. And because they’re okay they don’t want to kick up a fuss. And these are the athletes with the power but they just sort of finish their time and then you just never hear from them in the sport again.
“These athletes can have such a big impact, but they’re just not utilised in any sort of way. Again, that’s something I would look to change. Thankfully, we’re starting to see it where some past athletes are now getting into important roles in the governance side of it, which is exactly where it should be.”
Aside from trying to fix athletics’ problems, it’s the task of trying to qualify for what would be a fourth – and almost certainly last – Olympics which sits at the very top of Gemili’s to do list. His last experience of the Games, in Tokyo, was painful in more ways than one. He headed to Japan having gone toe to toe in training alongside the eventual 200m champion Andre de Grasse, only to injure his hamstring in the final warm-up. Taped up and determined to compete, Gemili hobbled over the line in tears.
With experience comes more patience and though he is desperate to book a Paris place, the first British man ever to run sub 10 seconds for 100m and sub 20 for 200m isn’t about to try to skip a few steps.
“Success for me now is just running free and running without pressure,” he says. “That’s not pressure from anyone else, it’s pressure that I put on myself. When I don’t perform – and by performing I mean challenging the world’s best and running world class times – what am I doing?
“Last season, I was running some crazy times in training and they just didn’t match up in competition. I cramped up before five races because I was putting so much mental stress and pressure on myself that, by the time I actually ran, I was totally drained.”
Why put himself through it, then?
“This is not an easy sport to be in. You do it because you love it. I’ve never felt more confident in my own ability. People haven’t seen the best of me yet. I’m certain of that and I will do everything in my power to make sure that, by summer, I’m absolutely flying.”
» This interview first appeared in the January issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here