Athletics: Black ribbon and gold hope drive on the Dwain journey

The Interview - Dwain Chambers: Britain's leading sprinter is far from the preening egotistic stereotype. Simon Turnbull meets a serious athlete primed for world glory in Paris
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The Independent Online

Dwain Chambers gives a flash of his golden tooth and breaks into a hearty guffaw. He is greatly tickled, evidently, by mention of the fact that a great British speed merchant happened to win the last major championship 100m title contested in Paris. He is greatly surprised too. Surely, though, Britain's great hope for high-speed gold at the World Championships, which open in the Stade de France on Saturday, has seen Chariots of Fire, with Harold Abrahams blazing his glorious 1924 Olympic trail in the Stade Colombes?

"Naah, too young," Chambers says. "It's been on Sky but I've flipped past it with the remote. No, it's not essential to me. I like getting inspired by what I believe I can do. That's enough."

And Chambers believes he can claim the 100m in Paris, the city where he won his first international competition as a senior athlete. That was in June 1999 in the Stade Charlety. A week after breaking the 10-second barrier for the first time, in Nuremburg, the young Londoner became only the third British sprinter to win the 100m at the European Cup, following in the footsteps of Allan Wells and Linford Christie. It was not a victory that he celebrated.

Chambers ran with a black ribbon pinned to his vest that day. The previous night he had been informed of the death of Ross Baillie, a close friend since their days in the British junior team. Baillie, the heir apparent to Colin Jackson's high-hurdling throne in Britain and potentially beyond, suffered a seizure caused by an allergic reaction to peanuts. He was 21.

"It's weird," Chambers reflects, four years on. "It seems such a long time ago now. But Ross is still in my thoughts. Memories pop up every now and again. I just try and remember how much fun we had together in the past, you know. He's still in touch with us, I guess, watching over what we're doing. He's still there."

It says a lot for the young man Chambers happens to be that when he won the European Championships 100m final in Munich last summer, his first thought was not to round on the critics who misguidedly suggested he had "bottled" the 100m final at the Commonwealth Games but to dedicate his victory. "This is for my friend Ross Baillie," he said, holding up his gold medal.

There is a lot more to Dwain Chambers than the stereotypical sprinter's image of the aggressive, preening egomaniac. Sure, he can talk the talk at times, but only in so far as honestly assessing his ability and confessing his goals - and never with an impish grin very far away from his face. His sunny disposition invariably shines through. You cannot help but warm to this engaging, muscular mountain of a young man.

There is a serious side to him, though. Mention Paris and last year's IAAF Grand Prix Final and the gold-toothed smile is swiftly replaced by a steely grimace. No European has ever run faster than the 9.87sec Chambers recorded in the Stade Charlety that day. It equalled the continental record Linford Christie set when winning the World Championships title in Stuttgart in 1993, but the statistical significance was lost on the Belgrave Harrier. He had gone to Paris to beat Tim Montgomery and claim the world No 1 spot for the year. There was no consoling him in the wake of the American's 9.78sec world record run. There still is none.

"I lost," he says. "Yeah, I equalled the British [and European] record, but I was beaten. And as far as I'm concerned, I don't do seconds or thirds. That loss has made me more determined this year. Everything I've done this year has had more meaning because I got hurt. It's put me in the frame of mind to go out and achieve even more."

And there is clearly still room for achievement for the young man who set a world junior record of 10.06sec in 1997 and who, at 21, became the youngest-ever World Championships 100m medallist when he took bronze behind Maurice Greene and Bruny Surin in Seville in 1999. That much is evident from studying the finish of the Grand Prix Final race in Paris last year. Remi Korchemny, the Ukrainian sprint guru who has taken over from Mike McFarlane as the guiding light in Chambers' career, has analysed it frame by frame on his laptop. A qualified engineer, the 71-year-old calculates that his protégé lost 0.03sec in decelerating as the line approached. "His best time should be 9.84sec," Korchemny maintains.

A native of Odessa, Korchemny lives across the bay from San Francisco at Castro Valley in California. The group of athletes he coaches at nearby Union City includes Kelli White, the Californian who succeeded Marion Jones as US 100m and 200m champion in June. Numbered among his past successes are Grace Jackson, the graceful Jamaican who took Olympic 200m silver behind Florence Griffith-Joyner in Seoul in 1988, and - in part, at least - Valeri Borzov, the Ukrainian whose sprint double at the 1972 Munich Olympics inspired the New York Times headline: "The fastest human is a Commie".

"Remi is a hard taskmaster," Chambers says. "He will run you into the ground to get the results he wants. But whatever Remi tells me, I believe. He told me I was going to run 9.8 last year and I did." This year Korchemny reckons Chambers is capable of running 9.75sec - when he is in perfect physical condition and when the weather conditions are perfect too.

Chambers has yet to record a sub-10- second time in 2003, although the 10.08sec he clocked into a headwind in the cold and damp at the AAA Championships was worthy of one. So was the hand-timed 10.0sec he was given when the electronic timing system crashed at the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace nine days ago. It was rounded up from a manually measured 9.91sec, which would have topped the world rankings for the year.

Still, Korchemny seems to have got his 25-year-old charge into peak shape at the peak time of the season - for a World Championships contest that promises to be the most open since Maurice Greene's emergence as leader of the world sprinting order in 1997. Chambers remains wary of Greene suddenly rediscovering his lost form, but at Crystal Palace he showed a clean pair of heels to the rest of his rivals. He knows that, in the absence of Paula Radcliffe, he is heading for Paris as the big British hope for gold.

"I've dealt with pressure before," he says. "The worst of it was the Commonwealths going into the Europeans last year. [Chambers finished last in the Commonwealth final in Manchester, suffering from leg cramps, but won the European title in Munich two weeks later.] To lose a title because of a crap injury, then to come back and train and do it all over again isn't easy. But I look at every negative as a positive. It certainly is going to work to my favour in the long run. If I had won two championships, then it probably would have made me complacent going into this year.

"I have expectations of my own this year and I just want to keep myself focused on one goal - and that one goal is winning in Paris. If you believe you can go out and win the World Championships... that's the frame of mind to be in. If you've got any doubts, then it's not going to happen. You've got to be tough. If you're not tough, then forget it. You're not going to make it."

Much of that toughness, one suspects, has been instilled by Korchemny. He was left to fend for himself as a five-year-old when his father was shot by one of Stalin's firing squads and his mother was taken to a labour camp. "I don't just help Dwain as an athlete but up here," the septuagenarian says, tapping his temple. "It's about the whole human being."

At the pre-World Championships training camp Korchemny has set up for his athletes at Saarbrucken, on the Franco- German border, he has had Chambers, White and company poring over the collection of video footage he has shot - of his charges and their rivals in training, in warm-up and in competition. It seemed that Chambers had also been watching westerns in his room when he spoke, a couple of weeks ago, about there being "a new sheriff coming to town in Paris". At the press conference for the Norwich Union London Grand Prix he told his audience he had been watching John Wayne.

"Oh, that," he says, when asked which Wayne film had inspired him. "I was joking when I said that. I don't even like cowboy films. I watch The Matrix... up-to-date stuff like that. And I'm really a big kid at heart. I love cartoons. I'm not too into the serious business."

That includes the serious business of David Puttnam's 1924 Olympic drama. Dwain Chambers, though, has heard of Harold Abrahams. "Yeah, yeah, I ain't that bad," he says - before heading off to put the finishing touches to his own Paris-bound chariot of fire.

Biography: Dwain Chambers

Born: 5 April 1978, Islington, north London.

Championship 100m record: 2002: 1st European, 8th Commonwealth. 2001: 5th World. 2000: 4th Olympics. 1999: 3rd World. 1998: 2nd European. 1997: 1st European juniors. 1996: 5th World juniors. 1995: 1st European juniors.

Records: 2002: 9.87sec - equal European and British record. 1997: 10.06 - world junior record.

Personal: Brought up in Finsbury. Lives in Ilford, Essex. Previous job: price-stamping goods at superstore. Elder sister Christine reached 1987 European junior championships 100m final

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