Scroll down far enough on their phones and Britain’s male sprint relay runners from last year’s Olympics will find a dormant WhatsApp group that has been silent since August 12 last year.
It is not uncommon for these groups to fade into disuse. With a new one created for the team at each major championship, and slight changes in personnel every time, things naturally move on. But none has ever reached such a finite conclusion as the Tokyo group.
It was on August 12 that the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) released the biggest doping bombshell ever to hit Team GB when they announced that CJ Ujah had tested positive for the prohibited substances ostarine and S-23.
Just six days earlier, Ujah had been the first-leg runner for Britain’s 4x100 metres team that missed out on gold to the Italians by just 0.01 seconds. Frustration at such a narrow defeat — especially from anchor leg runner Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake, who was pipped on the line — had soon evolved into elation, with Richard Kilty proclaiming: “When I’m 50 and fat, I will look back on this as one of the best nights of my life.”
In an instant, it turned to disaster. The athletes themselves received no warning, with Kilty finding out about Ujah’s suspension on Twitter while shopping with his wife and son for a celebration party that would never take place.
It was devastating for those involved, threatening to tear apart a relay set-up that had put years of infighting behind it to successfully unite and win multiple medals.
Caught similarly unawares, it was only later on the day of the AIU’s announcement that senior figures at UK Athletics first made contact with the affected athletes, but there was little anyone could really say. With the case in the hands of the anti-doping authorities, it was just a case of waiting for the process to run its natural course.
Over the coming weeks, there were various virtual conversations between athletes in the wider relay set-up and sporadic contact from UK Athletics, but the lack of available information meant there was little progress to be made.
Meanwhile, Ujah went silent, making no contact with his team-mates until after his B sample confirmed the positive test on September 14.
On a Zoom meeting the following month, he finally spoke to them for the first time, claiming he had taken contaminated supplements that were not certified for safe use by Informed Sport, a “mandatory” standard expected of British athletes.
A furious Kilty later said: “As a team-mate I feel let down. For the last 20 years of my career - the same as the other two lads - we have worked our asses off. We have followed the rules, in and out.”
By February, it was time to get back to action with the first relay camp of the year taking place at Celtic Manor in Wales. Despite regular discussions about the situation with members of the UK Athletics hierarchy in previous months, some within the set-up were surprised that the elephant in the room was not confronted head-on during the camp.
Instead, it was largely ignored, with some left feeling they were simply expected to continue as though nothing had happened.
On February 18, the athletes were informed by email that the Court of Arbitration for Sport had confirmed Ujah’s offence and Britain were to be stripped of their Olympic medal.
At subsequent relay camps in Florida in April, and again before the Birmingham Diamond League in May, Ujah remained something of a taboo subject. While united in their ambition to rebuild and prove themselves on the track, different members of the set-up remained divided about the man who cost the team an Olympic medal.
When Reece Prescod, an unused relay squad member in Tokyo, publicly said he had forgiven Ujah, Kilty responded angrily: “Reece is not in a position to forgive anybody because he hasn’t lost a medal. It’s f—ing bulls— what he said, to be honest. He hasn’t lost an Olympic medal. Would he say that if he lost an Olympic medal?”
'I forgive him'
Mitchell-Blake, who has long been the closest team member to Ujah, took a rather different view, saying last month: “That’s a very, very good friend of mine. I’ve said multiple times I forgive him.”
The final team member, Zharnel Hughes, said he had not spoken to Ujah for “a long time” but he described him as “a great guy, regardless”.
The rebuilding process has also been hampered by other factors. It is no coincidence that the major upturn in fortunes since 2015 has corresponded with a wholesale commitment and buy-in from everyone involved.
When Prescod, Britain’s fastest 100m sprinter this year, failed to turn up for a number of relay practices, it was decided that he should no longer be involved. However, that decision has since been reversed and he is likely to run the anchor leg in Eugene this week, with Kilty injured and Ujah’s spot still needing to be filled.
British champion Jeremiah Azu has also flown home injured from the World Championships, reducing options further.
That the team even has a spot here was also in some jeopardy after narrowly avoiding missing out on qualification. Having not competed at the 2021 World Athletics Relays, from which 10 of the 16 teams booked their spot, they then required a fast enough qualifying time to secure one of the six remaining places.
With all of their Olympics performances wiped out due to Ujah’s failed test, and a failure to get the baton round at the Birmingham Diamond League in May, Britain only snuck in as the fifth fastest by virtue of a run at the Gateshead Diamond League in July 2021.
'I'd say we’re still in a good place'
Nonetheless, now they are here, hopes remain high that a medal is within reach for a team that has made a habit of standing on podiums in recent years.
As for any lessons learned by the Ujah episode, Harry Aikines-Aryeetey said there had been no group commitment to only use Informed Sport supplements, but that there is a collective desire to be careful for one another.
“It’s very important to be mindful of what you’re taking and how it can affect others,” he said. “It’s not necessarily for anyone to pry into anyone’s business and say: ‘What are you taking and how are you taking it?’ It’s there for the athlete to take ownership over.
“Once you are in that learned position and part of that team, you’re taking an oath to be the best athlete and cleanest athlete you can be.
“There’s obviously been some wounds that need to heal, but other than that I’d say we’re still in a good place.”