Athletics: Chambers the latest victim of sport's cruel and personal edge

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One of the best things about sporting misfortune is the excellent range of excuses it generates. Under-performing footballers will wrap themselves in the comfort blanket of "I think we deserved something from the game - we looked good going forward but gave away five silly goals", or "The effort was there but the quality in the final third was not".

Meanwhile, athletes who have run like drains will mutter about nagging hamstring problems which affected their winter training, or - a particular favourite, this - point out that they still haven't started their speedwork (why not?). Alternatively, they arrive at major championships with the latest, all-purpose pre-loss insurance, a "niggle". Where athletes used to suffer injuries, now they carry niggles, which niggle away in a nigglish kind of fashion until the athlete loses. Or which, if the athlete doesn't lose, mysteriously vanish. "Niggle" - half nightmare, half giggle.

Beneath the face paint, however, lies bone-hard reality. The stitched eyebrow under David Beckham's Alice band bore testimony to football's dressing-room reality of defeat, blame and anger. The face of Dwain Chambers 24 hours after his World Championship 100 metres defeat, bewildered and frustrated, told of private torment.

At such times, one witnesses the intensity of life at sport's cutting edge. There, things get personal. After last weekend's sprint relay at the World Championships, when Chambers inherited a stride-and-a-half's lead on the final leg only to see his United States opposite number pass him in the last couple of metres, he stopped to speak to the written media in the mixed zone. Christian Malcolm, who had got the British quartet off to a strong start, stood alongside him as they tried to put a brave face on their disappointment.

Their conversation was interrupted by a crouching figure who pointed a mocking finger at them and emitted a prolonged, humourless laugh. "Haw haw haw haw haw haw haw..." It was John Capel, winner of the individual 200m title, who had predicted beforehand that the US team would win the relay, come what may.

Malcolm gave an easy smile and went as if to offer the American a good-natured embrace, but the double gold medallist turned and ran away with exaggerated high-knee steps, still crowing.

In retrospect, it would have been good to have uttered something along the lines of "If there's one thing worse than a bad loser, it's a bad winner", or perhaps "Classy guy!" Or perhaps just the simple but effective: "P*** off."

Sadly, none of these things was said to the insufferable Yank, which was much to the credit of the good natures of Chambers and Malcolm. It was, nevertheless, the kind of thing which can burn in the memory.

Earlier in the season, during a meeting held in blustery conditions at Loughborough University, Iwan Thomas endured one of his worst 400m runs as he faded to a virtual standstill in the home straight before finishing in a time approximately four seconds slower than the British record he had set in the years before injuries - real injuries, that is, not niggles - had undermined his career.

As the dismayed former European and Commonwealth champion made his way through the campus to an interview room, he was passed by a group of young athletes, one of whom shouted: "Put a bullet in him!" The remark rang out like a shot. "I don't need a bullet," Thomas replied. Five years down the line, the proud champion was no more than prey.

Such moments of casual cruelty reveal the harshness of life for those who have to stand or fall by their sporting performance. Four years ago in Monaco I found myself covering an athletics meeting that had been rendered about as relevant as beach volleyball by the other news of the day - L'Equipe's revelation that Linford Christie had tested adversely for nandrolone.

There was, however, one good thing about being in the stadium that night. It offered a chance to speak to Christie's old friend and former business partner Colin Jackson, who was competing in the 110m hurdles. Jackson had had some kind of a falling-out with the 1992 Olympic 100m champion which had led to him leaving Nuff Respect, the management group they had founded.

The full details of that rift are only becoming widely known now with the publication of Jackson's autobiography. But even that knowledge could not have prepared me for the way the illustrious hurdler responded to Christie's predicament.

Although Jackson agreed that the whole thing seemed odd, there was no impassioned defence of his old mate. Offered the chance to assert Christie's innocence, he replied by saying that he couldn't know for sure what anyone else did because he wasn't them. As a reaction, it was chillingly neutral, intensely personal. What it didn't say was deafening.