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Jonas Dodoo

THE NEW BREED

British sprinting is stronger than ever. Jonas Dodoo is one of the reasons why

It was July 13 2013 when something clicked. In the semi finals of the men’s 100m at the British Championships, the 25-year-old James Dasaolu crossed the line in 9.91s. He was only the fourth Briton ever to break the 10-second barrier.

“That opened people’s eyes – it opened athletes’ eyes,” says sprint coach Jonas Dodoo. “It’s like when the first four-minute mile was run. People think: ‘He can do it, but he’s normal. So it’s possible’.”

The summer after Dasaolu’s run, one of Dodoo’s athletes, Chijindu Ujah, then 20, became number five to dip under 10 seconds. Since then, three more have joined the ‘sub club’. Adam Gemili in 2015 and, this year, James Ellington – who ran 9.96s (wind-assisted) in the British Championships 100m final – and bobsledder Joel Fearon, who ran a legal 9.96s at last month’s English Championships.

And it’s not just the men. Led by Dina Asher-Smith, Britain has a group of female sprinters who ran a world lead in the 4x100m relay at the Anniversary Games. So, how has Britain gone from developing one or two rapid outliers over decades to producing a group of sprint stars in one generation?

Mind the gap

Dodoo provides some idea. The 30-year-old is based at Lee Valley Athletics Centre where, together with a growing team of young coaches, therapists and sports scientists, he is developing some of the country’s most talented young sprinters. Along with Ujah, who will be running the 100m and sprint relay in Rio, three others from Dodoo’s group are making their Olympics debuts. Daryll Neita qualified for the women’s individual 100m and will run in the sprint relay, while Bianca Williams and Ojie Edoburun both go as members of the relay squads.

“We’ve got the best group of young sprinters in Europe – all under the age of 22,” he says proudly. “It used to be that we’d have great juniors in this country who would never become great seniors. Year after year, we would see these top juniors either dropping out of the sport or getting hurt.

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Daryll Neita and Bianca Williams

“British Athletics have their funding system – they wait for people to run fast and show their worth, then fund them. At the bottom, we have a very good club system. But there isn’t anywhere for kids who realise they’re gifted and want to train harder but aren’t fast enough to get on to the system. That’s what Speedworks [Dodoo’s coaching set-up] has been. We find talent and give them a place to grow.”

Ujah’s development is a prime example: “He ran 10.26s in 2012 but he was still a fragile little boy. If he’d gone into a full-time programme then, he would have broken and people would have said: ‘He’s weak.’ He just needed time. And, two years ago, Daryll was injured. Last year she just about made the European under-20 final, and now she’s at the Olympics. Sometimes there are subjective qualities that a governing body that only looks at statistics just can’t see.”

Odd one out

Dodoo’s coaching career started early. “I was a really bossy, observant kid,” he tells us. “Whenever I played sport, I was always the guy who could take a step back from the excitement and analyse.”

A rugby player at school, by his second year at Hartpury College Dodoo was coaching the women’s team as well as working with a talented group of young male players.

The switch to athletics came when Dodoo focused on coach education as part of his Master’s: “My biggest interest is expertise. My wife says I’m an elitist. I studied great people – architects, chess players, coaches – and decided to find the best athletics coach in the world. That was Dan Pfaff.”

Perhaps best known for coaching 1996 Olympic 100m champion Donovan Bailey, Pfaff has also guided a host of world and Olympic medallists, including Britain’s long jump champion Greg Rutherford.

“I bugged Dan,” says Dodoo. “Emailed him again and again, then saved up my student loan and went out to California. I ran out of money after two months and was sleeping on athletes’ floors. But it was the best experience of my life, just observing.”

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Ojie Edoburun and Chijindu Ujah

He returned to the UK inspired and started volunteering at his local athletics club in Battersea Park: “People would tell me I did things weirdly because I wasn’t from track and field – I was from rugby. I combined what I thought was right with what I had learnt and came up with a system. It was really Dan’s system, but dumbed down for the kids. Over time, I had broken kids come to me who got healthy and underperforming people come to me who ran well.”

Some eight years later, Dodoo sees the methods that earned him quizzical looks being used as common practice. The key, he explains, was British Athletics’ recruitment of Pfaff in the lead-up to London 2012.

“Dan always said his legacy was never going to be the achievement at the Games,” he explains. “It was going to be the amount of coaches he touched with information and mentoring.

“I’m not saying anything new, I’m sharing what Dan shared with me. It might be a different perspective – one that works for British athletes – but it’s about collecting what works and focusing on the priorities for the athlete. That move away from being coach-centred and selfish to being athletecentred and selfless is the difference between good coaches and great ones.”

Educated guessing

Central to this philosophy is encouraging athletes to invest in their own training and, by extension, their own careers.

“We’re here to educate and empower them to take control of their knowledge and maximise their ability to run fast,” Dodoo says. “It’s easier to turn up and be told what to do, because then if it doesn’t work it’s not your fault. And if it requires decision-making, what if you make the wrong decision?

“Some find it easier than others, but they need to be empowered and educated. Every session has different effects on an athlete’s hormones, soft tissue, blood, mind. So training is an experiment, and my most accurate barometer is athletes’ feedback. We take jump scores, measure their nervous system to see how recovered they are, watch demeanour and movement, and collect numbers for speed and power. But there is nothing like quality feedback.”

It’s this mindset that Dodoo believes will help Ujah and co succeed in a sport that presents moral as well as physical challenges: “We’ve made exponential progress with young athletes in a sport where in some places there is a different culture – where it’s about doing immoral things to get gains. I teach that if you want to beat the dopers, you have to understand your body.

“Why do dopers take drugs? Often it’s because they want to train harder, sooner – do more. We do less. We focus on the minimum effective dose. Sometimes we go past the red line, sometimes we undercook them, but then it’s a lesson. Each is an opportunity to go through that experiment, take in the information and adapt it for the next cycle.”

Dodoo’s four-week cycles fit into an annual plan. This forms part of a longer-term strategy taking him all the way up to Tokyo 2020, where his present crop will be in their mid-20s and primed for success. By then, their young successors will be watching. It’s a cycle that Dodoo believes can put Britain back on the sprinting map, and prove that barriers really are made to be broken.

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