Waking up yesterday as the third-quickest British sprinter of all-time, Chijindu Ujah sensed the sheer enormity of running the 100 metres in Hengelo on Sunday in a hasty 9.96 seconds. “I’m still in shock, it hasn’t sunk in,” he candidly declared.
Two weeks before, in Loughborough, the European junior champion admitted to “feeling a bit rusty” following a year interrupted by injury but, assuredly, made clear his intent to shake up the established order. At the age of 20, and with ample time on his side, the Londoner has sprinkled extra spice onto an already intriguing battle for supremacy among the UK’s men of speed.
Only James Dasaolu and the long-retired Linford Christie have previously gone faster. On their shoulders sits the world indoor champion Richard Kilty and the veteran Dwain Chambers, along with Adam Gemili who appears primed to take major strides forward in the months ahead. Such a depth of competition will assist Ujah, argues the 2004 Olympic 4x100m gold medallist Marlon Devonish, who had a close-up view of the new whizz kid prior to his own retirement last year.
“I thought he had skills,” he declared. “He was young and raw. I remember giving him a lift to the bus stop as we trained at Lee Valley. It’s surprising he’s improved so quickly.”
Knocking three-tenths of a second off his best inside a month has brought instant rewards. Ujah, who trains with Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford, is understood to have been added to the promoters’ invite list for next month’s Diamond League meeting at Hampden. However, although England have delayed naming their athletics squad for the Commonwealth Games, it seems unlikely he can prepare for two visits to Glasgow in quick succession unless a relay berth is made available at the eleventh hour.
Yet the domestic scrap to head the rankings can profit all concerned, claims Devonish whose peak spanned an era in which the likes of John Regis, Darren Campbell and Mark Lewis-Francis all fuelled the fire of their contemporaries. “British sprinting is amazing,” the 38-year-old claimed. “It’s been a long time since you have had five or six running 10.1. That’s the perfect environment.
“Look at the Jamaicans and they all train together. It’s like training back home and the stress levels are lower. If you can do that with the UK, it will have a massive effect. The more people running quick, the more who will pop out as they have that competition.”
Like prizefighters strutting around the ring in an act of bravado, the two groups of sprinters based at Loughborough are understood to have taken their antipathy past the point of incivility, earning a private rebuke from British Athletics’ performance director Neil Black.
While they can, habitually, keep to their separate lanes, any animosity must be left in the call room when they are brought together in the relays, firstly for Team England at the Commonwealths, and then for Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the subsequent European Championships. “In the relay, I’ve got to curb that,” observed Devonish, who secured six medals at major championships in the 4x100, in addition to three Commonwealth golds. “I’m part of a team. If I don’t work as part of that team, you have to jog on. You don’t have to love the guy but there has to be common ground. I’m not best of friends with the guy, we share success and have a laugh and a joke.
“I’d pull a hamstring for him. I’d put 100 per cent in the team on the basis the rest of the team did the same. If someone doesn’t do that, it can cause friction. You can’t carry your personal stuff. How I put my hand out to take the baton and it’s not right for him, I adapt it for how he likes it. I’d give him what he wants.”
Follow that creed, he adds, and Jamaica’s position as the kings of the relay might be placed under threat. His own career completed, Devonish hints at a little regret at not playing a role in defending the title he helped land in Delhi in 2010. He did, nonetheless, get a taste of the Hampden track yesterday while conducting a coaching session for a group of young hopefuls. Like many who have visited the home of Scottish football since its conversion was unwrapped, he has been surprised by its authenticity. Despite its construction atop layers of scaffolding, there is no sense that it is like an indoor surface transplanted outdoors.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re running on boards,” he affirmed. “I’d anticipated that. It shows how technology has got involved and you can turn a football stadium into an athletics track.”
It is set up for quick times, he forecasts. Let the best of British take note.
• Watch the world’s best athletes including Yohan Blake, Mo Farah, Christine Ohuruogu and David Weir at the Sainsbury’s Glasgow Grand Prix on July 11-12. Tickets via britishathletics.org.uk.