One of Britain’s leading sprinters has turned to meditation ahead of Tokyo 2020 as he attempts to reach the Olympic final he missed by 0.01 seconds at the last Games
Every morning at around 7am, CJ Utah tells his talkative roommate and fellow sprinter Reece Prescod to be quiet, sits down on the floor, and begins to meditate. “He didn’t know I meditated at first,” says a smiling Ujah, “and I know he was thinking ‘what’s this guy doing?’”
Ujah spends 10 minutes or so listening to soothing voices which guide his breathing, and then he prays. It is a new regime, one which began as a way of taking something positive from lockdown. “You realised when Covid hit that there’s more important things like our families and friends. People are suffering, people have died. So, I think it was a sense of compassion to meditate and realise what’s important. I want to be in touch with the real world. It doesn’t kill to be nice to people.”
During his time in the Olympic Village this week ahead of Tokyo 2020, Ujah has been listening to a podcast called Mindful Compassion which explores Zen Buddhism, not something you would immediately associate with the brooding macho stereotype of elite 100m sprinters. But what happened five years ago in Rio helps to explain his pursuit of a clear mind.
Ujah missed out on the Olympic 100m final by less than 0.01sec, tensing up at the line and losing his form to let others sneak ahead in a photo finish. He was 22 then; now aged 27, after several seasons struggling with injury, Ujah has learnt the importance of remaining calm in the chaos of those electrifying 10 seconds that define a sprinter’s career. He is determined to learn from his mistake.
“The late Lloyd Cowan said ‘no final is given to you’,” Ujah says, echoing the words of the renowned British athletics coach who died from Covid in January, aged 58. “That was one of the things which stuck with me when I came back from Rio. I learned to run through the line and not to take any race for granted.”
There is a calmness in his voice too when he proclaims that Linford Christie’s British 100m record of 9.87 is there to be beaten and that Britain’s trio of men – Ujah, Prescod and the European champion Zharnel Hughes – are not just here to make up the numbers. “I definitely believe we all have the capability of going under the 9.90 mark, but I don’t think that can be my emphasis here. I think my focus has to be trying to win. It’s a championship: times will come when you compete to win.”
There are plenty of rivals standing in their way, of course, even if Usain Bolt’s reign is over and the world champion Christian Coleman is absent serving a ban. Trayvon Bromell is the man who beat Ujah on the line in Rio – “I got dipped,” Ujah says bluntly – and the 26-year-old American is considered the standout favourite after running 9.77sec last month.
Ujah finished second to Bromell two weeks ago at the Diamond League in Gateshead, but he says the race to inherit Bolt’s sprint crown is wide open. “You can throw out ‘favourite’, but Bromell’s not been in this position of going to an Olympics Games with [expectation]. OK, he’s run the fastest time this year, but he’s also been beaten this year. It’s not like Usain Bolt where you’re saying ‘who’s coming second?’ When it gets to the final it’s anyone’s game.”
He strongly believes in the team as a relay unit challenging for 4x100m gold at the end of the Games, with Britain’s 200m entrant Adam Gemili set to join the 100m trio, and Ujah knows that quartet may be his best route to an Olympic medal. “We will practise this weekend and this is honestly the most confident I’ve felt in such a team. We only aim to get the gold medal. The last three, four years have been really good for us and we’ve collected medals at every single championship so it would be nice to round off the cycle with the right colour.”
Of the 339 Olympics titles to be won over the next fortnight in Japan, the 4x100m on the National Stadium track will be one of the very last. Between now and then every day will begin in the same way, Ujah says, even on 1 August when he hopes to wake up with an Olympic 100m final in his dairy with the 4x100m final on 6 August. “I don’t change much in the lead-up to championships or big races,” he says. “I think that’s where people go wrong.” Five years after falling just short on the finish line at Rio, Ujah is in Tokyo to keep calm and carry on all the way to the end.