Jump to content

Best Dwain Chambers article I have read


Recommended Posts

OSM Link


A clean Dwain Chambers finished fourth at the 2000 Olympics, but that wasn't enough. Now reviled as a drugs cheat, he has lost his house, his income and his credibility. OSM spends four manic days in Turin with him to see if he can ever get his life back on track

Digg it (2) Tim Adams The Observer, Sunday 29 March 2009 Article history


At one point in his confessional book Race Against Me, Dwain Chambers directs his reader to a Wikipedia page, "Doping cases in sport". It lists every athlete, cyclist, weightlifter and snooker player who has been caught with something illicit in their urine. It's a who's who of sporting purgatory, and it goes on for ever. When you get to Chambers's name eventually, though - and you are only up to the Cs - something odd strikes you. Every other named-and-shamed competitor has a single solitary banned substance on their charge sheet; nandrolone or stanozolol, usually. Chambers, though, has this list attached to his name: THG, testosterone, EPO, HGH, insulin, modafinil, liothyronine.


There is a reason for this. Among the legions of the disgraced the British sprinter is the only one who has set out, chapter and verse, exactly what he injected or swallowed in the hope of gaining those elusive hundredths of a second that, back in 2002, he so desperately desired. The others on the list either live in the limbo of denial, still claiming a botched sample or the wrong kind of herbal tea or a physiological freak; or they are happy to comfort themselves - and their sport - with a partial truth: what they did was a one-off, a mistake, not a habit, not a regime, it wasn't them, not really.


An alternative title for Chambers's book, it seems to me, sitting in his hotel room in Turin the day before he tries to run faster indoors than any man has ever run, would have been Coming Clean. Despite the sensational headlines that have attended the book's publication, which has been timed to coincide with this event, the European Indoor Championships, it is really an old-fashioned piece of sin-admission. Chambers as a result seems full of the relief of someone who has just emerged from the headmaster's office having finally owned up to setting fire to the school - he has let his family down, his team down, his nation down, and most of all he has let himself down, but at least he's had the guts to admit it.


He is an engaging presence, quick to laugh, and high on the candour of the penitent as he relaxes on his bed in his British tracksuit, with his bags of Jelly Babies and Minstrels and his gadgets magazines on his side table. He doesn't care much any more what other people think about him, he says; he has heard it all before. "Murderers are reinstated back into life. You know, I didn't kill anybody. Of course people can condemn me, but if any one of those individuals could stand up and tell me they had done nothing wrong in their past, nothing they were not proud of, then I'm happy to listen..." He speaks with the conviction of someone who knows inside where he has been and knows, too, where he is now.


Looked at one way, of course, Chambers continues to be a stain on the sport, to represent everything corrupt and corrupting about it. His presence in Turin is just about tolerated; the Italian papers mutter about his "sospetti muscoli", and, as I've discovered, saying you are writing something about the sprinter hardly works as an access-all-areas pass to the stadium. UK Athletics may have given him a place on the team, but it's clear they would rather he just went away (he tells a funny, possibly apocryphal, story in his book about the authorities claiming to have "lost the key to the cupboard in which the electronic clock was stored" on one occasion when he tried to get a qualifying time). One thing seems certain, though: Chambers is not going to go away, not now, and not any time up until 2012 and the Olympics in his home city, from which, after the failure of his court case last year, he remains banned.


And that, I suppose, is the other thing that strikes you about Chambers's entry on that unending list of dopers. He is the first athlete really to insist on a proper second act after his disgrace, the first who has it in him to prove that he can run faster clean than he could when he was on his cocktail of designer steroids, the first to demand redemption.


Sitting in his room, I wonder if Chambers feels himself to be the same person who, at 23, went to San Francisco, having just come fifth in the 2001 World Championships, and sold his athlete's soul?


He smiles gravely at the idea, as if he hardly has any idea who that young man was seven years ago. "No, I've totally changed. I have learned about life, I've had to. I have learned about myself and I have learned about responsibility. When I was out there doing that stuff it was all just about me, you know. I was earning 200 grand a year. I had the house, the car, I knew everything, I wouldn't be told. I was impatient. Now I would be thinking about the effect it would all have on my kids [he has two sons and a stepson] knowing that their dad was doing that, and I could never look them in the eye."


His book dwells a lot on fathers. Chambers's own father left home before he was born and has never been a presence in his life. When I ask if they are in touch he flinches. "He's in Jamaica. We don't have a relationship," he says. His stepfather was brutally strict, though they are on reasonable terms now. ("While I certainly don't agree with the ferocity of some of the beatings I received," Chambers writes in his book, "I understand that at the time it was considered normal to batter the s*** out of a child.")


Chambers doesn't go in much for might-have-beens - you suspect he knows that way madness lies - but some of the more wistful passages of his confessional are those in which he wishes he'd had someone to help him make choices when he was starting out. He writes of receiving a phone call at the family home in Islington from someone at Harvard University offering him a sports scholarship. He had just become the fastest junior in the world; he was 18. He had no idea what Harvard was, though, and there was no one he felt he could talk about it with. In the end he simply never returned the call. He always envied those athletes who had had strong parents around them, Seb Coe for one. He's not self-pitying, but he wonders if, given the guidance he hopes to give his own boys, he might have made different choices.


The choices he did make began, he says, with a nagging kind of suspicion. He'd been told for as long as he cared to remember that he had the capacity to be the fastest runner in the world. For a while, though, after the millennium year, in which he came fourth in the 100m in the Sydney Olympics, Chambers had been wondering why athletes he had been used to beating were suddenly quicker than him. He was putting in more work than ever, getting more experience, but he seemed to be going backwards. In particular he wondered about the American Tim Montgomery, a contemporary whom he had always felt he could beat. Montgomery was now three metres ahead of him - for a sprinter that sudden gap was breathtaking - and he was breaking world records. Chambers was eaten up with that knowledge. So he went to find out what Montgomery was doing, where he was training, and met Victor Conte, the Mephistopheles of the 100metres, head of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (Balco), who became for a while, as he recalls, "a father figure" to him, as well as, effectively, his drug dealer. "Victor was the perfect salesman. There were times when I was frustrated by him, but all he did was give me an option really. I don't blame him. I made the decision. We still speak."


What about? "I have promised to hand over to the athletics bodies everything I did - and only Victor knows that really, so he helps me with that information. We're cool, considering."


As it happened, and as he says repeatedly, Chambers was very much in the wrong place at the wrong time. Conte had just split from Montgomery and his coach, and was looking for a new subject for what he liked to call Project World Record. Conte was a loquacious figure, and his operation was also already under covert investigation by the FBI. His motivation was the same as that of any snake-oil salesman; he needed advertisements for the legal (and ineffective) nutritional supplements that Balco sold. What better than an association with the fastest man in the world?


Chambers's account of what happened next sounds so raw in its telling it must be true. He went quickly from curiosity to temptation to complicity once Conte got to him, and after that there seemed no going back. In bleak diary entries he detailed the 300-plus instances of self-medication that occurred in the 18 months in which he was in thrall to the possibilities of the drugs Conte called "the Cream" and "the Clear".


The irony of it all, as Chambers says now, was that he also discovered very quickly that there was no magic formula. The drugs he was taking, sometimes three or four different things a day, allowed him to train harder and recover more quickly (there is no substance that can simply make you run faster - just those that allow you to do more work) but at the same time his performance lost its consistency. He was so worried about the road he was travelling that he couldn't sleep, he was suffering muscle cramps (including in the final of the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002, where he finished last), he lost his power-to-weight ratio. "It was a heavy head to carry," he says now. "Not to be able to talk about it. I was a wreck, always on edge, always arguing. Everything started going downhill for me. But that is how it was."


Chambers ran his fastest 100m in that period, a British record of 9.87, but he believes he would have reached that level anyway, on the performance curve he had been on with his coaches back home. He had panic attacks brought on by the deception or the drugs, and every time he went through customs with his phials of "flaxseed oil" he felt like he was in the opening scene of Midnight Express


When I ask him now what he thinks would have happened had he not been caught, though, he is genuinely unsure. Does he believe he would have owned up to it all?


"I'd like to think so," he says, after a pause. "But I honestly cannot say what I would have done for certain. I had an idea how many other people were doing it. I was in a different place."


Chambers seems grateful, in a way, that it turned out as it has. I wonder if he thinks there is still time to fulfil the potential of his junior years, or if, in the two years of his official ban from the sport, and the four years of the "unofficial" one, in which he has been frozen out by selectors and promoters, that chance has gone for ever?


"I can't let myself look at it like that," he suggests. "Those missing years have taught me a lot about myself. I was suicidal at times, but in some ways I had to go down that road in America to realise what the hell I am doing this for. At the time it was a lot about money. In 2001, I earned $50,000 for beating Maurice Greene: 10 seconds' work. Which 21-year-old would not be affected by that in some way?"


The money has long since dried up. In order to compete again after the original ban Chambers signed an agreement with the IAAF that he would pay back all of the $170,000 that he earned in the period he was taking drugs. Since he has had no invitations to run he has not started to reduce that debt. He's sold the house, and the car; his brief forays into American football in Germany (which ended when he did not get a work permit) and rugby league (which ended after a few weeks of tackling practice at Castleford) were really just desperate efforts to earn a living. He currently lives off his partner Leonie's salary as a civil servant in the prison service. His "team" - his manager Simon Dent - works for next to nothing; his coach, Daniel Plummer, an ex-sprinter who formerly trained his old rival Darren Campbell, was not granted a pass for these games and had to pay his own easyJet flight out.


Chambers has no sponsorship, and of course receives no support from UK Athletics. He mostly trains alone - "Just give me a set of spikes and a track and I'm OK" - against a clock. It is, in the circumstances, an extraordinary act of will that he can race at all, let alone threaten records. But then running fast has always been his escape clause. For the first six months of his ban, he says, he sat around cursing his fate; one morning, with no end in mind, he just went back to his training - it was the only structure he knew. Funnily enough, I say to him, of all the athletes in Turin, he's probably about the nearest thing you get to the Corinthian spirit, the only one doing it for love.


"I just wanted to prove something to myself, really," he says.


The following morning, I watch Chambers warming up at the track, next to the old Lingotto Fiat factory. All sprinters have a self-enclosed aura about them in the hour before a race, but you can't help seeing a couple of other things in Chambers, too. For a start, it clearly means more to him than to his rivals - as he had explained to me, having lost everything, and been unable to run for nearly five years, he knows exactly what the national vest symbolises. Also, if he can win here, and maybe break a record, it might be easier to race elsewhere. Surely everyone will want the fastest man in Europe at their meeting?


He looks as focused as ever, the malevolent stare, but there is a calm about him, a sense of having seen it all before; this is not just a factor of age, it comes from a belief that this is no longer just a sport; he is running for absolution.


As a result, of course, when he gets out on to the track for his heat, there can only be one winner. Later that afternoon, in the semi-final, in a formidable expression of emotional release, he breaks the European record, 6.42 for 60m. The following day he inevitably takes the gold, and then lies down for a long while on the track, his eyes closed, while the continent's photographers crowd in. He doesn't risk a lap of honour, and while the anthem is played there are plenty of boos from among the Italian crowd. Chambers is, of course, whisked off for a drug test, and I ask the Dutch director of UK Athletics Charles van


Commenee, ostensibly his biggest supporter among the sport's authorities, if Chambers is now a part of the team the same as everyone else.


"He is in the same hotel," he says. "He has the same food."


Right. Does van Commenee ever think he could be an inspiring figure in some ways, by proving he can run faster clean than doped?


"That, I don't know."


Will the Chambers story go away before 2012, does he think?


"It will do," he says, with confidence. "There's nothing more to say, I think."


But there is. In the drug-testing area, later, Chambers is planning the evening's celebration: a couple of beers and - he doesn't drink - falling over. I wonder what he was thinking about lying there on the track after the race?


He grins his big gold-toothed grin. "I was just thinking, for the first time, things are moving forward," he says. "It felt like a beginning for me." He's full of talk of the future, of the "little tally of medals - our secret" he wants before he retires, of the lessons he can give to young sprinters, of his pleasure in getting a card of encouragement from the British supporters' club out here.


How did it compare to when he ran on drugs: had he slept the night before?


"I did," he says. "I slept like a baby. Good dreams."


The next day, of course, and in the days that follow, all the old nightmares return. The papers are full of stories about Victor Conte, and the news from van Commenee that Chambers won't be selected for the British relay team; Steve Cram suggests that the general mood of the athletics establishment, watching Chambers win in Turin, was summed up by one whispered comment in his ear at trackside: "Our sport is dead."


Spend any time with Chambers, though, and I am not sure that is the conclusion you should draw. Dopers in sport test everyone's faith. Should they, like drink-driving policemen, say, be beyond the pale for ever? Or does everyone, having served their time, deserve a second chance? The easiest thing, in a way, is to talk in apocalyptic terms when faced with Chambers's story, to suggest it reveals a sport in terminal crisis, and to demonise him. The other way is to read his book as he wants it to be read, as a cautionary tale, to take on board his revelations of the pressure that money now puts on young athletes, to act on his suggestion that a national team should be just that, and no one should be allowed at 21 to go off and make all their own choices. It's not enough to hope it will all go away.


In the two weeks after Turin, Chambers embarks on an ad hoc roadshow, to promote the book and put his case. I catch up with him at Bristol University, where he is doing a Q&A with a bar room-full of students. He starts hesitantly, there is some mutual suspicion, but once he is in his stride, there is no stopping him; he's the Ancient Mariner in a tracksuit. Why, he is asked, when other athletes have been allowed to return to the sport after having tested positive for substances, does he think he has been singled out?


"It can only be because I have been honest," Chambers says. "They asked me the truth and I told them the truth and then they condemned me for it even more." He explains the secrets of the training regime that has allowed him to become the fastest man in Europe again. A lot of it comes down to listening to his body. Now, if he feels tired one morning, he doesn't go to the track; if he feels good, he puts more in.


One thing he does, in the absence of a training partner, is to place cones along the 100m track on the footprints of world-record holder Usain Bolt's 41 gigantic strides, and sees how he measures up. He uses 43 paces. "I'm going to try to make up the extra in leg speed," he says. Other than that, he suggests he has learned a lot from watching Roger Federer, the way he carries himself on court.


"No emotion until it's over. As soon as you let on how you are feeling, you give yourself away." It's a humble and compelling performance and by the end even the purists I speak to, who train the university athletics team, are won over.


Afterwards, I ask him what he has made of the negative press since his final victory; he says it doesn't mean much to him beside his gold medal, he's only looking forward. It seems he has been accepted to run in the Berlin Golden League meeting in June, perhaps against Bolt. Can he find a way to match that giant stride?


"We trained together in Jamaica in '06 for a while. He'd never admit it, but I would beat him up to 80 metres. We were tussling. If you look at what I have done over the 60 it equates to a low 9.80 for 100m. That's close..."


Does he think he is in the Olympic champion's thoughts at all?


"I guess he's aware he's going to have to race me, and I'm no slouch. I know Usain Bolt; he parties hard, and he trains hard. He's where I thought I would be many moons ago. He's at the top of the ladder, and there are a lot of people wanting to chop him down. I know something of how that feels..."


If it's allowed to happen, he senses a rivalry, maybe not this summer, "but over the next three years". And come 2012, assuming he is still banned from competing for Britain, could he imagine running for anyone else (perhaps for one of the Gulf states, like Qatar and Bahrain, which habitually buy in sporting talent)?


He smiles. "It's going to cause a hurricane if I answer that, another nuclear war. I like the way things are at the moment. I just want to live my life, you know."


But it has crossed your mind?


"Of course. A lot of people have said why don't you do it? And I could - but it's definitely not what I want to do. If I went and ran for another country, and won a medal, it would not be the same feeling. These are my colours. But the Olympics, you know, I've missed two already..."


And then he is up and away, off to Birmingham to spread the word, full of running. "We have been hitchhiking a bit, though we've got this clapped-out car, eating chicken nuggets, sleeping on floors. And we are only halfway, but it's been good, you know." He laughs, "If I could just speak to everyone one to one, I think I could get somewhere."


I'm left with two thoughts: the first is how odd it would be if the only British male to win a medal on the track in 2012 wasn't wearing a British vest. The second is maybe, eventually, everyone deserves a break.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...