Day one for English athletes at Tokyo 2020 - our report

English athletes enjoyed a largely successful opening day of the track and field programme at the Tokyo Olympics. Marc Scott battled the heat to finish 14th in the 10,000m final, while team captain Dina Asher-Smith was one of nine English competitors on the British team to progress from their qualification.

All three English sprinters safely qualified for the semi-final stage in the women’s 100m. Asher-Smith (Blackheath & Bromley; John Blackie), one of the favourites for gold in both this and the 200m, blasted out of her blocks and did enough to come through as the second fastest of three automatic qualifiers from the first heat in 11.07 (wind: -0.1). The world 200m champion feels she has plenty more in the bag for tomorrow’s semi-final and hopefully final.

“It felt good, it felt good to be out here and to finally get going, and it’s just great to finally get my Olympics under way,” she said.

Then in heat four, Daryll Neita (Cambridge Harriers; Rana Reider) sensationally took advantage of a clearly fast track for sprinters by setting a PB of 10.96. Although she was behind Ivory Coast’s Marie Jose Ta Lou (10.78), it was easily enough to take her through as the sixth fastest qualifier overall. The time took eight hundredths from her PB as she became only the second British athlete in history after Asher-Smith to run below 11 seconds. Despite that, Neita believes there is more to come and is focused on making the final. “I don’t want to say it, but it felt like it could have been better,” she said. “Obviously, really grateful and really happy for that first round, executing and getting a PB. Under 11 seconds is where you need to be heading into the final.” Not to be outdone, Asha Philip (Newham & Essex Beagles; Steve Fudge) found 11.31 (-0.1) – her second fastest time of the season – comfortably enough to put her through in second place in her heat.

Both English athletes in the 800m also had a comfortable path through to their semi-finals. European indoor champion Keely Hodgkinson (Leigh Harriers; Trevor Painter) ran within herself but made sure she was one of the three to go through from her heat. After finishing second in 2:01.59, the British champion said:

“I was excited to get out there. I always hate first rounds, but I’m happy to get my place for tomorrow and I’m ready to give it a go. You can never predict how the races go but I definitely learned a few things in there, that’ll be the biggest stage I’ve ever performed on, so I’m just going to take it round by round.”

Alex Bell (Pudsey & Bramley; Andrew Henderson) was just outdipped for the final of the three guaranteed qualifying places in her race but she was thankful to find her time of 2:00.96 was enough to make her one of the non-automatic qualifiers.Bell said: “Obviously, because we were oblivious to the times going into that race, it was just a case of tracking the leader and just seeing and pushing through the line with whatever I had left. It’s such a relief now to get back, get rested, and then tomorrow night.”

High jumper Tom Gale (Team Bath; Denis Doyle) acquitted himself well on his senior debut in a British vest. The European under-23 silver medallist cleared a season’s best of 2.28m at his third attempt and that was the height at which all 13 athletes progressed to the final. Gale needed two jumps at 2.25m but used his family watching back home as motivation to bring out his best. He explained: “I’ve missed a significant amount of technical work, which is why today I was a little bit inconsistent and frustrated to be second and third attempt in the last two heights, but I think I just got to the end and the image which came to my mind was one, my dad sat in front of the TV, heart rate at like 210, and my mum curled up in a ball watching away from the TV sat right next to him. I was like ‘I can’t let them down!’

In the first and so far only track and field final, the 10,000m, Scott (Cambridge & Coleridge) was pleased to place 14th in a field full of quality. Scott, who will also run in the 5000m later in the programme, clocked 28:09.23 behind winner Selemon Barega of Ethiopia (27:43.22). Talking of the conditions, he said: “It said it was like 30 degrees on the track and just felt even hotter than that. Going into the race you feel good, you feel good, the laps go by and you’re still feeling good, and then just bam, it hits you pretty hard and it’s over the last mile where I’ve struggled a lot more than I thought I would.” However, the man who earlier this year went to second on the UK all-time list for the distance added:

“It’s probably one of the most stacked 10kms we’ve had in a long time. I’m glad to be a part of it and place well, and I’m happy with my race.”

Sadly, Sam Atkin (Lincoln Wellington), who earlier this year booked his place on the team with a PB of 27:26.58, stepped off the track just after 5km, having been struggling with an Achilles injury.

The three English athletes in the mixed relay helped the British quartet to a national record in the relatively new event and a progression to the final. Cameron Chalmers (Guernsey; Matt Elias) led off with 45.8 off the blocks start before passing on to Scotland’s Zoey Clark, who was timed at 50.4 from the rolling start. Emily Diamond (Bristol & West; Benke Blomqvist) ran 50.18 on the third leg and then Lee Thompson (Sheffield & Dearne; John Henson) — despite being passed for the third and final automatic slot — completed the job of securing the quickest of the fastest “loser” places. Thompson’s split of 45.42 took them to a time of 3:11.95. Qualifying fourth fastest overall and within two seconds of the fastest team, Poland, the quartet believe they will be in the mix in the final. Chalmers said: “The main thing was to get in that final and as you can see by the times it’s wide open and we’re in a great position to try and do our best and fight for a medal.”

Unfortunately, both English athletes failed to qualify from the 5000m heats, although Amy-Eloise Markovc (Wakefield) performed particularly well to take a couple of seconds off her PB with 15:03.22. After placing ninth in the second heat, she had fixed feelings about her run and said: “My goal coming here was that I wanted to walk off the track happy and proud. I won’t say I’m ecstatic right now because the goal was to make the final, but I’m happy at least I came off with a PB, I engaged, and I fought my way through the line, but at the same time I was obviously hoping for a bit more.”

Meanwhile Jess Judd (Blackburn; Mick Judd) was within four seconds of her best as she ran 15:09.47 for 13th in the fastest of the two heats. Judd, who now has eight days to recover before she runs the 10,000m, which is a straight final, said: “I’m just so disappointed I didn’t have it. I put myself out there but with about a k to go, I didn’t have it in my legs. I just didn’t kick on when I needed to. It wasn’t like I didn’t do what I was told or knew what I needed to do, I just couldn’t do it.”

British discus record-holder Lawrence Okoye (Croydon; John Hillier), returning to the Olympic stage after making the final in London 2012, unfortunately had three no-throws and placed last in qualifying.

The English steeplechasers were also unable to find their recent great form. Phil Norman (Woodford Green with Essex Ladies), who earlier this year became the fastest Brit for 27 years, ran 8:46.57 for 13th in the first heat. Talking afterwards about the 28C temperature and humidity of 77%, he said: “It’s not too bad the first couple of laps but then it’s just your breathing. I haven’t done a lot of running since I’ve been out here as I’ve had an inflammation, so I’ve only got a couple of sessions in really, so I knew going off quick wasn’t going to be acceptable as I haven’t been able to train at that intensity.”

Zac Seddon (Bracknell AC) also has not had the best of build-ups, having been in isolation due to being on a plane on which someone tested positive for Covid. However, he was not making excuses as he ran 8:43.29 for 14th in his heat. He said: “It’s not been great and mentally it’s been hard here there and everywhere, but in this day and age that’s what sport is and some athletes are going to get easier rides in than others but you have to deal with it – you don’t get points on the finish line for having different build-ups, you know? The numbers on the scoreboard are what counts.”

Sophie McKinna (Great Yarmouth; Mike Winch), who was another of the athletes affected by isolation, found 17.81m from her first-round throw was not enough to make her one of the 12 to go through to the shot final. The athlete who was 17th overall said: “I normally build on my first throw, but unfortunately, I didn’t do that today. I think I could have made the final with the distance that made the final, but obviously I didn’t. I’ve got to go back and have a look and see what happened, review it and reflect on it.”