Athletics: Chambers can reign under a Gatlin cloud

British sprinter is nation's leading hope for a place on the podium - but after his own fall from grace would gold be tarnished?

Dwain Chambers: disgraced drugs cheat or national sporting saviour? It could be a topic for the Radio Five Live phone-in a week tomorrow, the morning after the European Athletics Championships close in Gothenburg. At a time when the track-and-field world is still reeling from confirmation that yet another 100m world record holder has been fuelled by something other than natural resources - first Ben Johnson, then Tim Montgomery and now Justin Gatlin - athletics in Britain is facing the possibility of a convicted drug-taker being cast in the role of great British redeemer.

The European Championships open tomorrow without a single British athlete at the top of the rankings in any event, prompting realistic fears that the Great Britain team could return from the quadrennial test of Continental track-and-field strength without a gold medal for the first time. They were on course for a blank in Helsinki in 1971, but then a 19-year-old from Edinburgh came to the rescue in the 400m, blasting to victory from the outside lane.

His name? David Jenkins - yes, the same David Jenkins who was sentenced to seven years in the Mojave Desert Prison in 1988 for masterminding a $70 million (£37m) steroid-smuggling ring in the United States, and who confessed at his trial to having used illegal drugs in his time as a British standard-bearer on the international track scene.

On statistical facts at least, Chambers is the athlete most likely to emerge as Britain's saviour in Gothenburg. Of the four Britons placed second in the European rankings, the Londoner is the closest to a No 1 spot, the 10.07sec he clocked in his 100m comeback race at Gateshead in June being just 0.04sec slower than the season's best by Francis Obikwelu of Portugal.

Obikwelu is the reigning champion in the event, though he was only formally declared as such five weeks ago, when the European Athletic Association belatedly acted on Chambers' admission last winter that he had been using tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) when he won the 100m title in Munich in 2002, 12 months before he actually tested positive for the so-called designer steroid.

Since his Gateshead run, Chambers has been beaten by the Frenchman Ronald Pognon at the European Cup in Malaga and been forced out of action by a quadriceps injury. He has lost ground to make up, but if he can regain the form he showed on Tyneside, and also withstand the rigours of four rounds in two days, tomorrow and on Tuesday, he could strike European gold again. The question then would be whether Britain - the nation at large and the track-and-field community - would celebrate it as an untarnished gold.

It is not a dilemma that British athletics has faced before. No British athlete has ever won a major championship title after serving a drugs ban. Carl Myerscough, another member of the team in Gothenburg, was banned for two years for steroid use and then won a shot-put bronze medal for England at the Commonwealth Games in 2002, but that achievement was barely noticed amid a flurry of home golds in Manchester. It would be different if Chambers were to win in Gothenburg, particularly if he were the only Briton to come good in the current climate of drugs-induced depression hanging over the sport.

The Gatlin story could hardly have come at a worse time for Chambers. Having chosen to bare his soul in contrite, penitent fashion on the eve of his return to the British team in Malaga, he might have been excused for thinking much of his burden of shame had been lifted, but now the full weight of his misguided past is back on his shoulders.

Anything he achieves in Gothenburg will inevitably be seen through the veil of his involvement in the scandal of the Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative, and by the fresh disgrace that Gatlin's positive test for excessive testosterone has brought upon his sport.

Chambers, to quote the words of Dave Collins, the performance director of UK Athletics, when the sprinter was picked for the European Cup, "is not the devil incarnate". He is still the same amiable north Londoner he always was, seemingly genuinely chastened by his fall from grace.

He knows he was guilty of a gross misjudgement when he chose to uproot from Mike McFarlane's training group at Haringey to be guided by the Ukrainian-born sprint guru Remy Korchemny in San Francisco - and, of course, to become entangled in the web of illegal performance enhancement spun by Victor Conte and the Balco laboratory. Chambers maintains he was unaware of the nature of the substances he was taking, and if there were any doubts about his naïvety they were confirmed when he made the voluntary confession that he used THG in 2002 - an admission that left him with a bill of £120,000 in earnings from that year to repay and cost him his European title.

"It took for all this to happen to make me realise I was better off before I went to America," Chambers reflects now. "I was much happier. Athletics was fun. When I went to America it became a big nightmare. What I put myself through physically scares me, now that I know what THG does. It could have a huge impact on my health in the future. I've been a prime example of what not to do."

Perhaps Gatlin has been guilty of naïvety too, though it would have to be on a grand scale given the numerous examples of athletes registering positive drugs tests from Trevor Graham's training group in Raleigh, North Carolina - 11 at the last count - and given the Jamaican sprint coach's long-running involvement in the Balco affair (as reported in these pages two years ago, C J Hunter and Tim Montgomery both told investigators that he had supplied drugs to his athletes).

Then again, Gatlin did persuade the International Association of Athletics Federations that medication for the effects of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder were responsible for a positive test he gave for amphetamines in 2001. Perhaps he had simply not paid attention to the questionable curriculum vitae of his coach - just like UK Athletics, evidently, when they gave their blessing for Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, the 17-year-old world youth 100m and 200m champion, to train with Graham's group in Raleigh in April.

All of which takes us back to the European Championships, under the same cloud that we left them in Munich four years ago, when the lingering mood was one of open suspicion at how Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou could breeze to victories in the men's 200m and women's 100m while avoiding the Grand Prix circuit and the drug-testing teams outside their home country. The Greek pimpernels have since paid the price for dodging the testers three times too many, but their names remain on the European Championship roll of honour - unlike that of Chambers.

David Jenkins is still listed as a past winner, too. He served only 10 months in prison and now runs a multi-million dollar sports-nutrition business in California. "A former Olympic athlete representing the UK, Jenkins has a passion for sports that earned him many athletic distinctions," his biography on the Next Proteins website says, listing his achievements on the track and in business. There is no mention of steroid taking, steroid trafficking or jail.

Gothenburg Golden Age: Six oldies who can still make their mark in Sweden

Merlene Ottey (Slovenia, 100m)

At 46, the grande dame of sprinting qualified to run in the 100m with an 11.41sec clocking. Ottey was an Olympic 200m bronze medallist for Jamaica in 1980 - three years before Carolina Kluft, the Swedish heptathlon golden girl and the face of these championships, was born.

Jan Zelezny (Czech Republic, javelin)

With three rivals throwing beyond 90m this summer, and his best for the year at 86.07, the ex-soldier is unlikely to claim the one prize that has eluded him. Still, at 40 and in his farewell season, the five-times world record breaker and three-times world and Olympic champion could win a medal.

Ellina Zvereva (Belarus, discus)

When the World Championships were held in Gothenburg in 1995 (and Ottey successfully defended the 200m title at 35) Zvereva won her first major title, aged 34. Born in November 1960, she is just six months younger than Ottey. At 45, she stands ninth in the European rankings with 63.20m.

Irina Khabarova (Russia, 100m)

At 27th in the rankings, Ottey might not be a realistic medal hope as a fortysomething, but Khabarova is. The Russian, who turned 40 in March, clocked 11.18sec at Tula in June. Only Kim Gevaert of Belgium (11.04) and Khabarova's team-mate Yuliya Guschina (11.13) have run quicker this season.

Simon Vroemen (Holland, 3,000m steeplechase)

A reservoir engineer with Shell, and holder of a PhD in micro-biology, he narrowly missed a medal at the World Championships in Helsinki last summer and also become European record holder, at 8min 4.95sec. Now 37, he is fifth in the 2006 rankings but will be looking to improve on his silver from 2002.

Joice Maduaka (Great Britain, 100m)

At 32, the Londoner is still three years short of official veteran status, but she has produced the form of her life this summer, ranking sixth in Europe with 11.23sec despite being dropped from the Lottery funding list by UK Athletics and being overlooked for the Commonwealth Games.

On Your Marks: Your guide to the best action

TOMORROW: Carolina Kluft and Kelly Sotherton are in action on day one of the heptathlon. Dwain Chambers tests his thigh in the opening rounds of the 100m. Paula Radcliffe's 10,000m title is likely to pass to Elvan Abeyleg-esse of Turkey in first track final.

TUESDAY: Kluft should wrap up Swedish gold in the heptathlon, with Sotherton in contention for a medal. Chambers could get on the podium with Francis Obikwelu and Ronald Pognon in the 100m. Greg Rutherford has a strong medal chance in the long jump, though Andrew Howe, an American-born Italian, is favourite.

WEDNESDAY: Possibly Swedish gold No 2 for Stefan Holm in the high jump and maybe a golden shot in the 400m for Tim Benjamin - if Welshman can catch up with Leslie Djhone and Marc Raquil of France on fitness and form.

THURSDAY: Becky Lyne (800m) could get among the Russian trio and Teyana Petlyuk of Ukraine to crown her breakthrough season with a medal. Marlon Devonish (200m) and Rhys "Son of J J" Williams (400m hurdles) are also potential medal contenders.

FRIDAY: Expect another Swedish gold, and a possible world record, from Kajsa Bergkvist in the women's high jump. And don't rule out a medal challenge against strong opposition from a close-to-fully-fit Dean Macey on day two of the decathlon.

SATURDAY: Christian Olsson starts as a firm favourite on home ground in the triple jump. Phillips Idowu should be on the podium with him. Jo Pavey is a serious medal challenger in the 5,000m and Andy Turner could be close to the top three in the 110m hurdles.

SUNDAY: Expect anything from the British teams in the relays, a bold bid for a medal by Mo Farah in the men's 5,000m, and Becky Lyne to make an impression in her secondary event, the 1500m.

Simon Turnbull

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