And the gold for defiance goes to…

The potential return of sprinter Dwain Chambers is a brilliant blow against sport’s petty authoritarians.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

For sports fans and liberty lovers alike, it’s not been a bad week at all. And for that, thanks must go in part to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Paris. On Monday, it ruled unlawful the British Olympic Association’s bylaw prohibiting athletes who have failed a drugs test from ever competing at an Olympic Games. For one athlete in particular, this freedom simply to pursue something he loves doing has been a long time coming.

Nearly 10 years ago, British sprinter Dwain Chambers tested positive for banned steroidal tongue-twister, tetrahydrogestrinone. So, for breaking the rules, the International Olympics Committee’s anti-drugs offshoot, the World Anti-Doping Agency, imposed the standard two-year ban on Chambers. And that, you might have thought, was that. Chambers had cheated, had been caught, and had been punished; a ban of two years for an athlete at the peak of their career certainly seems punishment enough. But with Chambers, things were different. His punishment, as far as the British athletics establishment was concerned, was not enough. For Lords Coe, Moynihan and their cohorts at the British Olympic Association (BOA), Chambers was not simply to be banned for a couple of years, he was to be damned for life.

Just look at what happened to Chambers after the ban. In 2006, he tried to return to the track, but poor form and, more importantly, a lack of race invites left him disillusioned. Needing money – he had had to pay back all his race winnings to the International Athletics Federation after the ban – he then spent a year or so playing American Football in the abortive NFL Europe League. When that was scrapped by the NFL, he tried, once again, to make a go of his athletics career. This time, his undoubted talent was evident. But the other problem, the determination on the part of the British athletics establishment to neither forgive nor forget, remained as unswerving as ever.

So, in February 2008, when Chambers won the World Indoor Trials, and with it a place in the British team for the World Indoor Championships, UK Athletics declared that ‘the committee was unanimous in its desire not to select Dwain’. Sadly such sanctimony came all too easy. ‘So drug cheats do win’, screamed the Daily Mail; Chambers is ‘a 24-carat cheat’, complained The Times; ‘he is being treated in the way he deserves to be treated’, concluded Dame Kelly Holmes of the media backlash. A year later, London 2012 frontman Lord Coe, who is also the vice-president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, declared that he had to ‘hold his nose’ to cope with Chambers’ continued presence in the sport.

The vilification of Chambers was not merely rhetorical; it was practical, too. Since returning to athletics in 2006, he has become the leper of the athletics world. 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’. Although, of course, it did, if the presence of disgraced US athlete Justin Gatlin at grands prix in 2011 is any indication – the exception to this tacit policy of forgiveness was of course Chambers. The president of the Euromeetings Group, Rajne Soderberg, was steadfast: ‘[Chambers] cannot be forgiven.’ So not only has Chambers been denied the chance to compete in the Olympics – the lucrative grand prix circuit has also deemed him persona non grata.

When I spoke to Chambers in the spring of 2009, his incredulity and frustration were clear. ‘I didn’t understand, and I still don’t understand’, he said. ‘It’s like I’ve been given a 10-year sentence for something that happened six years ago.’ Not that Chambers was lacking in contrition. ‘What I did was wrong and it didn’t send out the right message’, he continued, ‘but the message [that British athletics organisations] sent out is also wrong. They’re saying you should never ever be given a second chance.’ Indeed. While someone caught drink-driving, for instance, is allowed to get behind the wheel again, it seems the hyper self-righteous world of British athletics is far less forgiving.

Yet for all the British athletics establishment’s black-and-white moralising, there is still a huge debate to be had about performance-enhancing drugs in sport. After all, is taking a course of drugs to allow a sportsman to train harder and longer really so different from providing athletes with state-of-the-art sports facilities, or sophisticated dietary regimes complete with creatine supplements? Surely, outside the sports arena, athletes are doing everything they can, both physically and financially, to enhance performance? Why should a course of injections be treated any differently to, for example, high-cost, high-altitude training? Perhaps if we looked a little more clear-headedly at doping, grasping it as just as much of an extension of the competitive urge as new, computer-aided training methods, the ‘who’s on what?’ cynicism around athletics would stop eating into our enjoyment of the sporting spectacle.

The wider debate about drugs-in-sport aside, does Chambers’ rule-breaking really merit a lifetime of persecution? That is what is so strange about his treatment. It is so out of all proportion to what Chambers actually did wrong. But then, the obsession of British officialdom with doping doesn’t really have much to do with the rather prosaic, often ineffectual act of taking performance-enhancing drugs itself. Rather, it is driven by various sporting and non-sporting bodies’ need to justify themselves. And so wedded to the cause of anti-doping have they become that there is no perspective and, as a result, no room for something so human as a bit of forgiveness.

Hence the official response to the CAS ruling has been strident, not apologetic: ‘We will lead a global campaign to seek fundamental and far-reaching reform of WADA’, declared BOA chief Lord Moynihan on Monday. ‘We will call for tougher and more realistic sanctions for first-time drug cheats.’ Far from admitting that the punishment of people like Chambers was too severe, the BOA is saying it wasn’t severe enough. The same tone was apparent in the response of Hugh Robertson, Britain’s sports and Olympics minister: ‘The UK takes its responsibilities in the fight against doping in sport seriously. As we host the Olympic and Paralympic Games this year, we are promoting this message through the international “Win Clean” campaign.’ This is as much about sports bodies and the British government demonstrating their moral superiority to the rest of the world as it is about sport.

And this is where Chambers comes in. For although there have been plenty of British athletes, from a then near-retirement Linford Christie to shotputter Carl Myerscough, who have fallen foul of the drugs testers, Chambers has become the central object of official outrage. The reasons are tellingly symbolic. From his openness about his need for money to the gold teeth and the tattoos, he is the easy, readymade caricature of contemporary corruption. He is materialistic, he is aspirational, and he is not prepared to play the victim. If anti-doping serves the BOA et al as a moral crusade, then Chambers above all others is the infidel in our midst.

As for the real Chambers, the sprinter, the athlete, he is currently training in Jamaica. Just a few miles down the road, Usain Bolt is also currently preparing for the greatest race of all, the Olympic 100 metres. Let’s hope that, come July, Chambers is there alongside him.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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