Dwain Chambers: ‘I’m a determined little man’

One of the world's fastest men tells spiked about his battle with the UK's sanctimonious sporting establishment.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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This article is republished from the March 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The airy interior of the Lee Valley Athletics Centre in Edmonton, London, is a suitably liberating setting for this particular author’s book signing. For he is a man who for too long has seemed trapped by his past. A young lad approaches and asks him to sign his copy. Emboldened by the author’s willingness, the boy asks if he could also sign a copy for his brother. Graciously, the author does so. He turns back to me. ‘There’s a lot of emotion in that book. I had to get it out.’ He smiles, a weight lifted from his shoulders.

Engaging, open and honest, Dwain Chambers – British sprinter and one of the fastest men in the world – is certainly more relaxed now: the promotion for Race Against Me: My Story is coming to an end and, more importantly, he is at long last starting to receive a few invites to European athletics meetings. For a long-time sporting pariah, shunned by the sporting establishment both here and abroad, this, the prospect of being able to race again, is the light at the end of the tunnel.

This light has been a long time coming. In 2003, the then 25-year-old Chambers tested positive for tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, a performance-enhancing drug. I say ‘performance enhancing’ advisedly, since it didn’t seem really to enhance Chambers’ performances. He seemed overly sinewy, excessively built-up. Mentally, too, something was amiss. Perhaps it was guilt, paranoia, who knows exactly, but as the impassioned and frequently moving Race Against Me shows, doping for Chambers was less associated with success than it was with excruciating stomach cramps, unpredictable mood swings, and panic-ridden, sweat-trickling trips through customs with a suitcase full of the latest in sporting pharmacology.

Little wonder Chambers describes it almost as a relief to have been caught. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that the two-year ban from athletics that followed would not be the end of the matter.

With his funding cut and his sponsorship deals no more, Chambers attempted a return to the track in 2006, after serving his ban, but things weren’t easy. His form was poor, and the race invites were stubbornly unforthcoming. In desperate need of money, and probably escape, in 2007 he tried his hand at American Football and, incredibly, managed to win a place at the Hamburg Sea Devils in the NFL Europe league. Despite his onfield success at Hamburg – they won the league – the NFL’s decision to close down NFL Europe left Chambers, once again, in want of a wage and, just as importantly, a purpose. ‘It was all just so frustrating’, he says, wearily.

If that was frustrating, then his decision to re-enter athletics would bring him even more pain. In February 2008, having won the World Indoor Trials, and with it a place in the British team for the World Indoor Championships, UK Athletics (UKA) released a sickening statement stating that ‘the committee was unanimous in its desire not to select Dwain’ (1). Drug-free and winning he may have been, but forgiven he was not. And nor was UKA’s stance a one-off. It merely reflected the easy sanctimony that spilled forth from the athletics establishment and their media lapdogs when Chambers sought to return to the track. ‘So drug cheats do win’, screamed the Daily Mail; Chambers is ‘a 24-carat cheat’, complained The Times (2); ‘he is being treated in the way he deserves to be treated’, concluded Dame Kelly Holmes in light of officialdom’s attacks. Even this week, Lord Sebastian Coe, the former runner and now vice president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, who has long seemed to be on a one-man mission to condemn Chambers to the seventh rung of hell, said he has to ‘hold his nose’ to cope with Chambers’ continued presence in the sport. (3)

Unfortunately, this is not just a case of the mean-spirited saying malicious things. Its practical effect has seen Chambers serve a de facto lifetime ban not just from the Olympics, but from competition per se. Race organisers, no doubt influenced by the bilious outpourings from the Great, the Good and Lord Colin Moynihan, have refused to invite him to athletics meetings. For instance, the Euromeetings Group, which represents 51 race promoters throughout Europe, including Zurich’s Weltklasse, the richest grand prix on the circuit, ‘agreed not to invite these [convicted] athletes ever again’. The president of the Euromeetings Group, Rajne Soderberg, affected suitable intransigence: ‘[These people] cannot be forgiven.’ (4)

Chambers’ anger, his incredulity, is palpable. ‘I didn’t understand, and I still don’t understand’, he says. ‘It’s like I’ve been given a 10-year sentence for something that happened six years ago. I’m being punished for my honesty. I’m being punished because I’m on this track.’

In the context of what looks like a six-year-long persecution, that Chambers can seem content at all is surprising. But he does seem to have found an even keel. His victory in the European Indoor Championships earlier this month, where he fell agonisingly short of Maurice Greene’s world record, no doubt helps. As do the two invites to the Berlin and Uden race meetings: ‘It’s just nice to get that acknowledgement again. I am now able to focus on getting back into competition, and that’s the greatest feeling.’ Grinning, he declares: ‘This is what I can do!’

These moments of boyish, life-affirming excitement recall Chambers’ childhood reflections. Growing up in Islington, north London, he writes in Race Against Me of the joyous freedom he experienced, when, as an eight-year-old, he discovered that not only was he faster than others in his age group but he was also faster than older kids: ‘My mates would call me a freak… [but] when I ran, whether in a play race or running from the boys from a nearby estate, I was at peace with the world; content, confident in my own ability, simply amazed at how quickly I could pump my little arms and legs when I wanted to.’ This love of sport, not just of the bodily exertion in itself but a love of competing and of excelling, is central to Chambers.

Race Against Me proceeds to chart his early successes: World Junior champion, becoming a member of his idol Linford Christie’s Nuff Respect team, and more broadly his growing fame. But running alongside what looked like Chambers’ irresistible ascent, there were suspicions, nagging doubts that he was not quite doing enough to be the best – that is, to be the fastest man in the world. These came to a head at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton. Although he was confident going into the 100m final, after just 20 metres the Americans Tim Montgomery and Maurice Greene had ‘taken yards out of the field’.

He knew he was beaten. He writes: ‘At the time I was thinking, just what was it that the Americans had that the rest of the world didn’t? Drive, determination, facilities, money? Who knows? I’d given heart and soul to my sport and hadn’t come anywhere near a medal position. Something wasn’t right… Perhaps at this time the devil was slowly sowing the seeds for my conversion to the dark side, the dark side of athletics, a world of deceit and lying, a world where the athlete wriggles and squirms in an attempt to evade the testers, a world of double standards, of potions and pills and chemically manufactured substances… a world of drugs and a world of hell.’

But Chambers’ competitive urge was not to be assuaged. By the start of 2002 he had moved to America to join up with his new coach Remi Korchemny and, later, Victor Conte of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, or BALCO, a company now indissociable from one of the biggest doping scandals in modern-day sport. The rest we know: since 2002, Chambers’ life has been dominated by the fateful decision to keep up with the Marion Jones’s.

Perhaps if everyone who had ever cheated had been subjected to the same self-righteous vitriol as Chambers has been, then Chambers might have been able to live with it as his due. Perhaps if every athlete proven to have taken performance-enhancing drugs, people like the weightlifter Andrew Davies or the shot putter Carl Myerscough, had been excommunicated from the UK athletics community, then Chambers could have lived with his own damnation. And perhaps if everyone who had ever been involved with supplying drugs to athletes, people like Jurgen Grobler, once part of East Germany’s drug-riddled atheletics regime, and now GB rowing coach, had been expelled from British athletics, then Chambers might have taken his punishment on the chin. But they weren’t.

Instead, these people, no less guilty of cheating than Chambers and, in the case of Grobler, responsible for encouraging young East Germans as young as 10 to take steroids over nearly two decades, have been allowed, as well they should, to get on with their athletics careers after serving their punishment. Not that this has halted the righteous double standards of the chairman of the British Olympics Association, pompous little coxswain Lord Moynihan: ‘There will be no room for cheats as long as I’m involved with the BOA.’ The rank hypocrisy of the athletics establishment fills the nostrils of Race Against Me.

Understandably it riles Chambers. ‘I’ve only cheated once. You don’t see Carl Myerscough treated like that. You don’t see Andrew Davies treated like that. So why am I getting it? It really winds me up’, he tells me. This is not a case of Chambers trying to pass the buck. ‘What I did was wrong and it didn’t send out the right message’, he continues, ‘but the message they’ve sent out is also wrong. They’re saying you should never ever be given a second chance.’

Speaking to Chambers, it is impossible not to sympathise. ‘It’s been so frustrating; everything’s been a shut door. I kept thinking, “What on Earth am I going to do?” All of us in life – we all make mistakes. You do your time, you serve your punishment, and you move on. But for me it hasn’t been that easy.’ Chambers makes his point in Race Against Me by dredging up Lord Coe’s 10-year-long affair, revealed in the press in 2004. You see, Chambers explains to me, ‘we’ve all got a past’. Indeed. As far as I’m aware though, Coe has not been banned from marriage.

A curious thing about the persecution of Chambers is where it originates. It certainly isn’t from those at the grassroots level of athletics. As Chambers spoke to me at the Lea Valley Athletics Centre, people passing by would give him the thumbs up, or just shout: ‘All right mate.’ He would reciprocate. Against a railing, young athletes were warming up, talking excitedly about Chambers’ presence and what he might do later during a coaching session. Meanwhile, Sean Perkins, the ex-commonwealth shot-putter, rushed over to grab a quick word with him. They talk animatedly, enthusiastically. It is clear that Chambers is liked and popular among grassroots and aspirant sportspeople.

And the sanctimony doesn’t come from his Great Britain team mates either. ‘There’s no problem between me and the athletes. Half of the British team train here anyway. And none of them have a problem with me’, he says. It seems clear that the demonisation of Dwain Chambers comes from those at the top of the athletics establishment, people such as Lords Coe and Moynihan, aided and abetted by rent-a-gob quotes from old lags like Daley Thompson and the relentless ‘Stop writing about that cheat Chambers’ columns from Steve ‘what irony?’ Cram.

I ask him why he thinks he’s been singled out for this special treatment. He hesitates. He is understandably reluctant to answer. ‘There’s a lot of things. Many subjects, many issues that I’m not going to mention, because it will just get me into trouble.’ What Chambers touches upon, albeit by refusing actually to touch upon it, is what ‘Dwain Chambers’ signifies to those like Coe or Moynihan, to ‘the establishment and school ties’. Put simply, he is not one of them. He is cocky and wilful, and open about his need for cash, and he will not prostrate himself before them. He is ‘the poor black boy’ they wish ‘would fade away into obscurity’, as Race Against Me puts it.

And it is his refusal to go away, his characteristic determination to pursue his life despite the moralising from on high, that so irks them. He stands as the living, breathing and striving refutation of the hypocritical proselytising of the BOA, an organisation so wrapped up in its anti-drugs crusade that it is seemingly unable to see Chambers as a supremely talented athlete who once committed a wrong.

One thing Chambers will not be, however, is a victim. He will live with the opprobrium. ‘I’m a determined little man’, he says, smiling. He has to be. ‘I don’t know of any other job or walk of life where you get banned and can’t work ever again. Even if you lose your driving license, you get it back and you can still work. In my situation, I haven’t been able to earn money for six years. I have three kids. I feel a lot of pressure. But’, he says, pointing at his legs, ‘the only things that are going get me out of this are these two little buddies’.

Indeed. Those ‘two buddies’ are performing better than ever, so well in fact that a race against world record holder and Olympic champion Usain Bolt is possibly in the pipeline: ‘There is an opportunity in Berlin, and there are other meetings which I may get invitations to, but if I have to wait until Berlin, then I’ll wait, and I know I’ll be ready. I’m confident of that.’ This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the drug-fuelled moralising about athletics. It means that what should be a glorious spectacle, an elemental conflict between two forces of nature, may yet not happen, and even it does it will be pervaded by the background noise of ‘money’ and ‘drugs’. If only the Greek chorus of Coe and Co. would pipe down, and let athletes get on with athletics.

Fortunately, his form has not gone unnoticed by the sensible new UK Athletics director, Charles Van Commenee. ‘He has been very supportive of me. He recognises my potential and that of the rest of British team’, Chambers says.

As for rumours that he is back with the US-based Korchemny and Conte, UK-based Chambers is unequivocal: ‘People think I’ve got back with [Conte], but that’s not the case…’ Conte, Chambers says, simply provides him with information which he passes on to the relevant UK sporting bodies. ‘And my relationship with Remi [Korchemny] is done.’ Chambers is still clearly fond of Conte, but why shouldn’t he be? ‘He’s a cool guy. I’ve forgiven myself, and I’ve forgiven him, so let’s move on. That’s me in a nutshell.’ If only others could follow Chambers’ lead. Reading his bruisingly honest book would be a start.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Race Against Me: My Story, by Dwain Chambers, is published by Libros International. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the March 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

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

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

(3) Dwain Chambers issue causes stink for Lord Coe, The Times (London), 23 March 2009

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

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