Why Dwain Chambers is treated like a leper

Cocky, tattooed and not very apologetic: Chambers' real offence was not to take banned substances, but to refuse to be contrite about it.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Banned for two years in 2003 for taking the steroid least likely to rhyme, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), the British sprinter Dwain Chambers has since impinged but fleetingly on the public imagination, and then only as a reference point for the corrupt underside of modern sport. But, this week, after a perfunctory comeback in 2006, followed by an abortive attempt to become an American footballer, he has finally made the headlines for winning something: the world indoor trials. In the process, Chambers gained selection for Great Britain’s team for the World Indoor Athletics Championships. Good on him? Hardly.

‘So drug cheats do win’, shouted the back page of the Daily Mail. ‘Aspiring youngsters deserve a better role model’, complained the Guardian . This left Matt Dickinson at The Times (London) to declare that we were ‘cheating ourselves by cheering [the] man who swindled us all’, before concluding that this was a tale neither ‘of redemption’ nor of the ‘sinner repented’ but simply a victory for a ’24-carat cheat’ (1). In short, damnation all round. Not wanting to feel left out, Dwain Chambers was himself forced to join in the quasi-religious discourse, likening his situation to that of the most Biblical of all pariahs, ‘the leper’.

The outcry has been far from media driven, however. Having been making disapproving noises before Chambers’ victory in Sheffield, UK Athletics (UKA) released an incredible statement to accompany his selection for the team they had themselves chosen, stating that ‘the committee was unanimous in its desire not to select Dwain’ (2). UKA contended that the prospect of a legal challenge meant they were forced to pick Chambers. Yesterday, the opposition to Chambers seemed to intensify. Following the precedent set by Fast Track, the UKA’s commercial arm, to ban Chambers from competing at the Norwich Union Grand Prix final in Brimingham, the Euromeetings Group, which represents 51 race promoters throughout Europe, including Zurich’s Weltklasse, the richest grand prix on the circuit, also ‘agreed not to invite these [convicted] athletes ever again’ (3). The president of the Euromeetings Group, Rajne Soderberg, affected suitable intransigence: ‘These people cause so much damage, it cannot be forgiven.’ (4)

That last clause touches upon the fire and brimstone nature of the Chambers furore. What should have been a legal matter, that is, a finite punishment for transgressing a rule, has become something else entirely. It is now a moral crusade. Moreover, as the near-religious tone of the recrimination suggests, what is required from Chambers is endless, unabated contrition, a striving for atonement that will never be granted. For Chambers, as Soderberg states, ‘cannot be forgiven’.

This is not, then, a particular transgression or law break that is being punished, it is Chambers’ character itself. He is being judged, not the misdemeanour, and he is being found wanting. A fellow British sprinter, Simeon Williamson, picked up on this: ‘I think people are looking a little at the man rather than the issue here because Dwain has a bit of a reputation.’ (5) Indeed. From the gold capped dentristry, to the tattooed torso, he suggests a cocky, acquisitive sort, which in today’s climate of conspicuous anti-consumption, is the worst sort of all. Such aggressive ostentation suggests motivation by cash as much as track glory, something alluded to in the UKA’s statement: ‘we have to take an individual whose sudden return… suggests that he may be using the whole process for his own ends’. (6) But not only is Chambers guilty of seeking monetary reward, he just doesn’t seem, well, that sorry, and a lack of contrition is deemed worse than the sin itself.

In Chambers’ case, this hasn’t always been so. When the ban was initially lifted, his displays of regret, and ‘it was a terrible mistake’ public apologies, were greeted favourably. Such was the effect that at the time of his selection for the European Cup in 2006, the UKA performance director, Dave Collins, was convinced enough of Chambers’ regret to announce he was not the ‘devil incarnate’. Even Dame Kelly Holmes felt sufficiently moved to call him a ‘great athlete’ who ‘we probably need in the sport’ (7).

It all changed, however, in May 2007 when he gave a rather more bullish interview to the BBC. There would always be people taking performance enhancing drugs, he argued, because the science is always ahead of the testers. While some don’t want to risk getting banned, ‘I was willing to take that chance… I was under the assumption that I wouldn’t get caught.’ (8) This informs Holmes’ most recent comments: ‘He has changed in his demeanour and his attitude to the sport. I haven’t changed my view about drug cheats.’ (9) In other words, he is no longer expressing adequate contrition.

Dwain Chambers’ crime, then, lies in his refusal to play the game, to tug his forelock before the athletics establishment, and give himself up to the public as a victim of personal avarice, a ‘sinner repented’. Unfortunately, such displays of public contrition are the only response the UKA has to the public’s ever suspicious attitude towards athletics. For many, athletes are guilty until proven, if not innocent, then at least ready to atone. In this light, the histrionic moralising of the past week or so appears as much a PR exercise as an ethical stance. That such rampant sanctimony comes at the cost of any athletics career Chambers might have left – he’s 29 now – is largely ignored. For the British Athletics establishment, Dwain Chambers is a necessary sacrifice.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black asked whether Christine Ohuruogu was hero or villain?. Matthias Heitmann urged us to let Le Tour competitors take drugs. Andy Miah doubted that the World Anti-Doping Agency could keep up with Frankenrunner. Alan Hudson argued that competition is the only thing about the Olympics which is not vulgar or demeaning. Paul Bickerton analysed the making of an Olympian. Or read more at: spiked issue Sport.

(1) Cheating ourselves by cheering man who swindled us all, The Times (London), 12 February 2008

(2) GB name Chambers in Worlds squad, BBC Sport, 12 February 2008

(3) Promoters join forces to shut out Chambers, Guardian, 14 February 2008

(4) Promoters join forces to shut out Chambers, Guardian, 14 February 2008

(5) Big Debate: Should we support Dwain Chambers in a GB vest, Guardian 14 February 2008

(6) GB name Chambers in Worlds squad, BBC Sport, 12 February 2008

(7) GB should pick Chambers, BBC Sport, 18 June 2006

(8) Disgraced Chambers in drug claim, BBC Sport, 28 May 2007

(9) Chambers deserves flak – Holmes, BBC Sport, 13 February 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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