The last time Dwain Chambers was seen on a running track in Britain he was performing a lap of honour at Crystal Palace when the scoreboard flashed the result of the 100m at the 2003 Norwich Union London Grand Prix: "1 D Chambers 9.53 world record." The placing was correct but not the fantastical time. The electronic timing system had suffered a breakdown. Instead of advancing the world record by a quarter of a second, Chambers was credited with a rough-estimate 10.0sec run.
As the crestfallen Londoner prepares to return from the wilderness of his drug suspension, the question is whether he is still fast enough seriously to trouble the clock - not to mention the global speed merchants who have emerged in his absence. The answer will start to become apparent at Gateshead today after Chambers raced from his London home to Tyneside yesterday to sign an agreement with UK Athletics about the terms of repayment of monies he earned in 2002 and 2003 while using the designer steroid tetra-hydrogestrinone, more commonly known as THG. The agreement secured his clearance to run in the 100m heats at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix meeting this afternoon.
At 28, Chambers still has time on his side to pick up the momentum he lost when he moved to California in search of a golden sprinting touch and became caught up in the drugs scandal involving the Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative. The steroid-assisted 9.87sec he clocked at the Grand Prix Final in Paris in 2002 remains a joint European and joint British record, though after formal deletion of his tainted performances by the International Association of Athletics Federations, his officially recognised personal best would be 9.97, which he recorded in the bronze-medal position at the 1999 World Championships in Seville.
Ben Johnson never regained the 9.79 world-record form he showed before his positive test at the 1988 Olympics, clocking a best of 10.13 on his subsequent return to competition. Chambers, though, is confident of catching up with his former self in time for next year's World Championships in Osaka, if not for the defence of his European Championship title in Gothenburg in August. "I believe I can be just as successful as I was in the past, but it's going to take a bit of time," he said.
"I need to get a feel for competing again. I've got the competitive mind. I'm just not sure how my body's going to cope physically with having been away from the sport for so long. I believe I'm good enough to get the European record and the European title again. It's just a matter of being patient."
Since last October Chambers has been dividing his time between London and Jamaica, training under the direction of Glen Mills, the coach to Kim Collins, the former world and Commonwealth 100m champion from St Kitts. Collins is in the field for the 100m at Gateshead today, together with the Jamaican Asafa Powell, who is joint holder of the 100m world record.