Dwain Chambers: 'It's a new era for me. Doing it right is so much more rewarding'

A drug-free Chambers wants gold next week – but France's young master stands in his way, he tells Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

Christophe Lemaitre was back in his hometown this week, being appointed as an "Athlete Ambassador" in Annecy's bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2018. The news will have brought the wryest of smiles to the face of Dwain Chambers. When the Summer Olympics come to his hometown, two years from next Tuesday, the north Londoner will be not so much an ambassador as an unwanted outsider.

Unlike Lemaitre, the 20-year-old who has been the toast of France since becoming the first white sprinter to break the 10-seconds barrier for 100m a fortnight ago – "L'Enfant du Paradis", as the headline in Le Républicain Lorrain hailed him – Chambers has the burden of a tainted history to carry around with him.

It might not be openly visible in Montjuic Stadium next week when the 32-year-old Briton goes head to head with the rapidly emerging young French flyer in a 100m duel that promises to be the highlight of the European Championships, which open in the hillside Olympic arena overlooking Barcelona on Tuesday. It will be unmistakably there, though.

For one thing, there will be the asterisk next to Chambers' name in the championship handbook, at the foot of the result of the 100m final in Munich in 2002. The Belgrave Harrier won the race, in 9.96sec, but the performance has been deleted from the record books, replaced by a footnote: D Chambers DQ.

It is a lingering mark of shame. Chambers was disqualified retrospectively, when he failed a drugs test in the summer of 2003 and the fact emerged that he had been powered to his European Championship victory by a cocktail of illicit products from Victor Conte's Californian Balco factory.

Then there is the ghost of Gothenburg for Chambers to contend with. After serving a two-year ban, he competed at the last European Championships in the south-west Swedish city. He finished seventh in the 100m and helped the British 4x100m relay team to a victory that was tarnished when Darren Campbell refused to join him on a lap of honour, saying he did not agree with the selection of a doping offender.

"Looking back on the past, it was a different era for me," Chambers reflected, taking a break from training at the British team preparation camp in Monte Gordo, Portugal. "It was a different situation. That wasn't me. That wasn't right. What I'm doing now feels more natural to me.

"I've made a lot of mistakes and I've been able to put those behind me and look forward, with this opportunity second time around. Doing it the right way is so much more rewarding for me. I don't have to worry about people creeping up behind me.

"Barcelona is an opportunity for me to get back on that start line and do it in a better climate. And if I can get the win it will be a reward that will be really special to me."

Whether Chambers will get the reward of an untarnished gold remains to be seen. He might be the reigning world indoor 60m champion but he is only the second-fastest European at 100m this summer. The fastest is Lemaitre, a leggy young colt with a surname which happens to translate as "The Master".

The pair met at the European Team Championships in Bergen five weeks ago. Chambers edged the victory by a whisker, clocking 9.99sec – his first legal sub 10-second 100m time since 2001. Lemaitre finished second in 10.02sec but at the French Championships in Valence a fortnight ago he won in 9.98sec, becoming the first white athlete to break 10 seconds – the 71st in total.

The French press deliberated long and hard about whether to make a big deal of the ethnic landmark issue but, given the strength of the far-right extremist vote in the country, chose to treat it as a passing matter of record. Lemaitre himself gave a Gallic shrug when asked what it felt like to be the first white man to beat the clock. "For me, it is a superfluous matter," he said.

There is clearly much more to come from Lemaitre. A thin, wiry figure, he only started weight-training at the end of last season – under the direction of Pierre Carraz, a 70-year-old veteran of the coaching game, whose most notable past success was in the distance running field, guiding Paul Arpin to third place behind the Kenyans John Ngugi and Paul Kipkoech at the World Cross-country Championships in Warsaw in 1987.

Lemaitre lives and trains in Aix-les-Bains, the French spa resort that was a favoured watering hole of Queen Victoria, but he was born and bred nearby in Annecy. The picturesque lakeside town in the Alpine Haute-Savoie region is vying with Munich and Pyeongchang for the right to host the Winter Olympics in 2018. It was there that Chambers lifted the European Cup as captain of the victorious British team in 2002 – another result that has been annulled because of the drug-fuelled deeds that will also keep him out of the London Olympics (due to the British Olympic Association by-law which precludes past doping offenders from selection).

Lemaitre was the world junior 200m champion in 2008 and won the European junior 100m title in Novi Sad, Serbia, last summer. His time, 10.04sec, broke the European Under-20 record that Chambers set when winning the European junior crown in Ljubljana, Slovenia, back in 1997. Now, in his first year in the senior ranks, Lemaitre has become the third-fastest 20-year-old of all time – behind Yohan Blake of Jamaica (9.93sec) and the Nigerian Seun Ogunkoya (9.97sec). Chambers' best 100m time at that age was 10.10. Usain Bolt's was 10.03 and Tyson Gay's 10.27.

Lemaitre has his landmark sub-10 clocking but Chambers has accomplished the feat more than a decade apart – one of only two men to have done so. The other is Frankie Fredericks, the graceful Namibian who took Olympic 100m silver behind Britain's Linford Christie in Barcelona in 1992. Chambers clocked 9.97sec in 1999 and 9.99sec in that Bergen race in June – in which he got the better of Lemaitre by 0.03sec.

The rematch in Barcelona promises to be a classic sprint duel – not quite on the level of Bolt v Gay at the World Championships in Berlin last summer, perhaps. But, then, that proved to be no real match, Bolt lowering his world record to 9.58sec, leaving his American rival looking like an also-ran with an awesome time of 9.71sec. Chambers v Lemaitre ought to be a much closer call – in the same arena, of course, where Christie won his Olympic 100m crown 18 years ago.

Christie was 32 when he struck Spanish gold on the track at Montjuic, the giant hill which towers above the port and city centre of Barcelona. Chambers, another 32-year-old Londoner, hopes that experience will count in his favour when it comes to the high-speed crunch next week in a contest which opens with heats on Tuesday evening, followed by semis and the final on Wednesday night.

"I think experience is going to be hugely important for me," Chambers said. "It's the one ace card that I have. As well as an ability to run fast, I have to draw upon what I have on my opponents and that's experience. I'm going to have to rely on what I know best, just use my mind – and, hopefully, it will bring success.

"Lemaitre has got a faster time than me but that doesn't faze me. If anything, it stirs me on to go out and do even better. It all comes down to what happens in the final. Looking back on what happened in Bergen, I was the best that day and these championships will identify who is the actual No 1 in Europe. It's exciting for European sprinting. It's really good. I'm looking forward to it.

"I believe I might need to run a personal best to beat him, but you don't know what the conditions will be like. I ran in Barcelona two weeks ago and there was a headwind. I ran 10.14sec but the important thing was that I won. It's more a case of concentrating on winning and if that happens with a sub-ten clocking or a PB I'll be doubly happy."

Chambers' legal personal best is the 9.97sec he clocked to win the World Championship bronze medal behind Maurice Greene and Bruniy Surin in Seville in 1999. He did run 9.87sec in the Grand Prix Final at the Stade Charléty in Paris in 2002, equalling Christie's European record, but that was while he was under the influence of such illicit chemical products as tetrahydrogestrinone, erythropoietin and modafinil, and has long been expunged from the record books.

Chambers' past form on the doping front has kept him out of the International Association of Athletics Federation's new Diamond League series of meetings this summer. In the Paris leg of the tour last week, Lemaitre found himself up against Bolt and the former 100m record holder Asafa Powell in the Stade de France. He finished fifth in 10.09sec, Bolt winning in 9.84sec.

Chambers watched the race at home on television. He saw nothing to suggest that Lemaitre might "bottle it," as it was put to him, when it comes to the big race in Barcelona. "He still performed well against the best in the world," Chambers insisted.

Might the old hand of the sprint game not try to put the "evil eye" on his fledgling French rival, though, while they are getting ready for the gun to fire? "Nah, I'm not going to do that," Chambers said, chuckling at the thought. "I don't want to frighten the kid. I want him to enjoy it."

Chambers' 100m challenger: The first white man to break 10 seconds

Name Christophe Lemaitre. Lemaitre translates as "The Master".

Born 11 June 1990 in Annecy, the picturesque lakeside town in the French Alps where Chambers captained Britain to victory in the European Cup in 2002 – a result annulled after Chambers confessed he had been using drugs at the time.

Lives Aix-les-Bains, spa town once frequented by Queen Victoria.

Late starter Took up sprinting at the age of 15. Previously played football, rugby and handball. Fan of Marseilles football club.

Fast-lane achievements World junior 200m champion, 2008; European junior 100m champion, 2009 (when he broke Chambers' European junior record with a time of 10.04sec); national records of 9.98sec for 100m and 20.16sec for 200m at this month's French championships in Valence (main picture, right).

Areas for improvement Uncommonly thin for a sprinter and only started weight training at the end of last season. A somewhat erratic starter.

Coach Pierre Carraz, 70. Guided Paul Arpin to bronze medal at 1987 World Cross-country Championships.

Coach says "Chambers will be the favourite in Barcelona. He has the experience."

Chambers on Lemaitre "He'll be riding on the confidence of having a faster time than me this year."