Who We Elevate

Stephen Pond/Getty Images for European Athletics

I’m writing this because of something a kid once said to me on a visit to a school.   

Pre-pandemic, I used to do school visits quite often as a “role model” to promote sport and athletics.

It’s weird. I still find it hard to see myself as a high-profile person, a role model.

I’m still getting used to that. I mean, I’m just Dina. I’m just me. I run fast. Being seen in that way, as a role model, wasn’t something that I had ever imagined for myself.

But when I go to schools, I speak directly to the kids and I get all kinds of questions. And because they’re just kids, the questions can be honest and personal.

Really honest and really personal.

Especially from the girls.

They ask me about doing sports with periods, with boobs, with back pain. They want to open up about all their fears and insecurities.

 Stuff we need young girls to be able to talk about openly.

I’ve been in situations in athletics, surrounded by my team, many of them grown men, asking me how I feel and I’m like, “Umm … my lower back is killing me; my period has really messed me up this month.” And they help fix it. 

I am fortunate to have this openness with my team, but for many it is still a taboo area and something people are not comfortable talking about.

In my world, the margins are small and the stakes are high, so we need to be frank if we are to be successful. It’s good that girls are comfortable asking these questions.

However, one comment from those school trips in particular has stayed with me for years. It drives a lot of the work I do off-track, and ultimately led me to write this piece.

This beautiful, little eight-year-old girl came up to me and said, “I think I need to start exercising because I think I'm getting fat….”

 She was eight. EIGHT.

How do you even respond to that?

I was like, “…Wait, WHAT?!”

I mean, that sentence is so crazy? There’s so much to unpack. Where does an eight-year-old learn that?

That sort of question stays with you.

Who We Elevate | By Dina Asher-Smith | The Players' Tribune
Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images for Nike

It goes without saying, we need to keep promoting body confidence, visible body diversity and an understanding that being healthy is more than just your dress size, if we are to address these issues.

But specifically in our industry, we need to consider how an eight-year-old interacts with us and what we reflect back to her.

At eight, she expressed that she saw sport as a means to an end, to reach an aesthetic goal.

And that shouldn’t be, at eight, the main message that she has received.

Of course, being active contributes to a healthy lifestyle, which is extremely important, but it’s so much more than that.

Sports are fun. They’re a way to express yourself. They’re a way to let off steam, build friendships, improve your mental health, challenge yourself and grow. They are a potential career. They are a way to realise dreams.

We need to clearly show the next generation of young women the realities of sports.

You’ll rarely feel preened and perfect. It’s sweaty, muddy and may even include a bit of blood. It’s exciting. Exhilarating. You’re not thinking about your hair, face whilst you’re doing it; you’re trying to be better, to win, to have fun.

We need to make sure that the eight-year-old girl knows that — loud and clear.

Honestly, I’m grateful that at a young age I learned to see my body as a tool. A thing to be valued, as something that enables me to achieve my goals, to push my limits and be ready to try again tomorrow.

It was about being faster and stronger.

What was important was being the best that I could be, the best version of myself. At the end of the day, if I grew a third eye I wouldn’t have cared. If it helped me compete better and win races, then great!

I have the people around to thank for my outlook; my teachers, my coaches, my friends, my family but most importantly my parents. I grew up in London in a close family, with great parents in a super sporty, super competitive household. My parents were and are super loving, happy, smiley, supportive people but, oh my gosh are they competitive!

To give you an example, we used to play dominoes all the time at home when I was growing up.

Or at least we did until it got too heated.

When I was little, they used to beat me every time, and they used to love it.

The game would be full of laughter, hugs and smiles, but they’d never just let me win, just to be nice to “Little Dina.” If I wanted to win, I had to earn it — I had to be better than them. But suddenly, when I started to get better, it became really competitive between all three of us and then there was drama. In fact, I got so good that we just stopped playing altogether. To this day I don’t know where they hid the set, but it must be somewhere in the house. Hahaha!

It wasn’t just dominoes though, it was everything.

My dad and I played a game we called “potshots,” where we would try to chip a golf ball into a plant pot in the garden.  

Same deal.

No helping Little Dina out. He played like he was facing Tiger Woods every time!

Dina Asher-Smith | Who We Elevate
Courtesy of Dina Asher-Smith

It instilled this competitiveness in me and also the lesson that if you want something, no one is going to give it to you. You have to earn it.

It was a lesson that made me want to go again and again and again.

Growing up, if anyone ever beat me at anything I’d be like, “Right, let’s go again!”

I used that mentality once I found athletics and my coach John, who I’ve known since I was eight years old.

When I was competing as a teenager, I wanted to break records every time I ran. I wanted a PB with every single race no matter how impossible that was.

John would try to rein in my expectations and say things like, “If it’s rainy or windy, it might not be possible, Dina….”

I’d be like, “I don't care what physics or logic says. That’s what I want to do. I want a new PB!”

I had irrational goals and a sense of perfectionism back then, but I was fortunate that it was not related to body image or tied to self-esteem through aesthetics; it was geared towards sporting performance.

I had a goal. I had a plan. And I saw my body as the vehicle for it.

Look, I know it may feel like I’m preaching to the converted if you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s how I work!” but sadly many women simply don’t engage with sport, or their bodies, in that way.

And of course, I’m not trying to argue that everyone should have an Olympic level of involvement or investment either. 

What I am saying is that a healthy relationship with exercise and self-esteem is key — particularly as we “lose” so many teenage girls from sport, when it simply stops being fun for them. 

When it becomes anxiety inducing — suddenly, running and jumping around becomes a lot less attractive if you have sore, growing boobs, cramps every few weeks and inadequate support and encouragement.

When it becomes only a means to reach an aesthetic goal.

Suddenly, running and jumping around becomes a lot less attractive if you have sore, growing boobs, cramps every few weeks and inadequate support and encouragement.

Dina Asher-Smith

So how do we, as an industry, do our part in addressing this?

Top of the list is the stuff that’s been screamed a hundred times already. It’s coverage, it’s airtime, it’s equal pay for women.

But when I say industry, I’m talking about more than what happens on the field of play. 

It’s the campaigns, merchandising, gaming, billboards and how we interact and influence wider culture. Who we elevate, and why.

It’s giving women equal, earned opportunity.

We need to carefully consider who gets the opportunities and recognition outside the arena.

These people, intentionally or not, become part of the wider sporting narrative and represent how women see themselves in relation to sports.

Does the way that women are portrayed off the field actually engage young girls and make them want to participate?

Do these people inspire?

Are they the best possible example available to portray the message that’s being communicated?

One of the really great things about track and field is that you see all different body types: tall, short, powerful, strong, elastic, slender.

I can be on the starting blocks between a girl who is five foot flat and one who is well over six feet.

You see different ethnicities and different backgrounds. It’s very egalitarian out on the track.

But, off the track, I know there’s still a way to go.

The best on the track don’t always get the best off it.

I feel like we are getting somewhere. I’ve seen a shift in the conversation since 2012 and the London Olympics, but there’s still work to be done.

Dina Asher-Smith | Who We Elevate
Martin Rickett/Press Association via AP Images

With men, it tends to be simpler. If you’re the winner, you’re the MVP.

You get the trophy.

You get the flowers.

You get elevated.

If they’re marketing a new pair of football boots, they’re going to use someone like Lionel Messi up there on that billboard or wherever, because he’s the best.

They aren’t going to use someone who only plays football recreationally just because he fits the image better. Someone who is more, in quotation marks, “marketable” or “aesthetically pleasing.”

Nah, why would you? It makes no sense.

And yet, often that is still the case when you look up and see the female option in the ads, on the billboards, in the TV coverage. 

Why?

Because they fit an aesthetic ideal? Is there only one marketable body type for women? And then what kind of message does that send to the eight-year-old girl? What does it tell girls who aspire to be athletes? What does it tell them about their value in the wider sporting landscape, off the field of play?

Is there only one marketable body type for women?

Dina Asher-Smith

If you’re the GOAT, the world-record holder, the gold medalist, that’s it. You deserve everything that comes with that. It’s simple.

(At least it is for men.)

But there are countless examples of where this isn’t the case in women’s sports.

I’m constantly thinking about amazing athletes like Marta, Annika Sörenstam, Katie Ledecky, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Valerie Adams or even most recently, Dalilah Muhammad (400-metre hurdles world-record holder, reigning world and Olympic Champion).

Why don’t we see more of their stories? More of their images? Why have they not been elevated to cross over, to transcend our sporting world?

Why aren’t their achievements and legacies familiar to more of us like those of Messi, Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and all the other amazing sportsmen?

To be clear, I don’t need this stuff to feel whole. We don’t need it.

We want to win. We want to be our best, to be the best. 

But we can see the double standard.

And while we see it, the eight-year-old girl can’t.

She sees and thinks that even if you’re the best your sport has ever seen — achieved feats that the world has never seen before — it is still more valuable to the narrative of this industry to fit an aesthetic.

If you’re a woman, it’s simply not enough to be one of the GOATs.

Dina Asher-Smith | Who We Elevate
Stephen Pond/Getty Images for European Athletics

People can talk around this subject in nice, friendly marketing meetings. They can “um” and “ahh.” They can bend over backwards and give a billion and one excuses. But quite frankly, if somebody wanted to change it, it would happen tomorrow. If they really wanted to change the way sportswomen are used in marketing, who is chosen to represent an industry to the public, they would get it done. In a heartbeat.

And I know it’s about so much more than just recognition.

It’s messaging, it’s women’s magazines, it’s what young girls are being taught in school. It’s global. And, as I said, I think the conversation is shifting. We see Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Allyson Felix. It has gotten better.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to speed it up.

We need more conversations around what bodies are for, what it means to love yourself, about health and representation.

We need more accurate portrayals of what it’s like to be a sportswoman, awareness with periods, with sports bras, with body image, physical health, mental health and self-esteem. 

We need more images elevated of women in sports in full flight; strong, sweaty, powerful and muscular. 

We also need to see them as rounded human beings, when they lose, when they’re frustrated, angry and upset.

We need to see them outside of our world.

We need more conversations around what bodies are for.

Dina Asher-Smith

I wanted to write this for all the eight-year-old girls who are thinking about getting into sport but have doubts, fears and questions. And for all the young women who might be thinking about giving up sport.

I’m still coming to terms with being that role model.

I’m just Dina. I run fast.

But I want to help us talk about these things. To keep the conversation moving.

And if my outlook can help inspire you, or we can shift the conversation around what women in sports look like, then that’s absolutely the kind of role model I do want to be.

I hope you do take up sports, but because you want to have fun

To be the best you can be, broaden your horizons and achieve things you didn’t even think were possible, that the world didn’t even know were possible.

And when you do, I hope you get the recognition you deserve.

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