Athletics: Lewis-Francis the antidote to Chambers affair

Steroid saga 'a stab to the heart', but not a fatal blow. Simon Turnbull hears a young sprinter reveal why
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The Independent Online

As Mark Lewis-Francis's season of high-speed promise petered out into slow-motion disappointment last summer, the talk at track-side on the international circuit was that perhaps the time had come for the Black Country boy to spread his wings - like Dwain Chambers had done in moving his training base from north London to San Francisco. There but for the grace of God...

Four months on from the World Championships in Paris, where Chambers missed the 100m gold and a place on the podium by the thickness of his leotard, the European champion is facing a two-year ban after becoming entangled in the designer-steroid ring allegedly run by his San Franciscan nutritionist.

Lewis-Francis, who finished last in his semi-final in Paris, is still on home ground in the West Midlands, picking up the pieces of a frustrating season rather than staring at the shards of a shattered sprinting career.

"I have learned from last summer," the 21-year-old reflected on Friday lunchtime at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. "It was my first full season on the senior circuit and I did too much. I was knackered when it came to the World Championships. I won't be making the same mistake next year.

"I've changed a lot of things. I'm training harder. I've started doing weight sessions. I'm training every day. I've stopped being a lazy boy. I'm more dedicated now."

That new dedication will take Lewis-Francis away from his Birmingham training haunts - but only fleetingly, and only as far as Bath and Newport. In preparation for the Olympic-year track season, he intends to train with Christian Malcolm and Jason Gardener, the three amigos visiting one another on a regular rotation basis. "The Americans stick together like glue," Lewis-Francis said. "We should do the same thing. Christian's an outstanding 200m runner. Jason's untouchable at 60m. I can fit in the middle and be a good 100m runner.

"We're just going to work it out between ourselves and our coaches. I'll go down to Bath and Newport. They'll come up here. I'd never leave Britain and base myself anywhere else. What's the point? I don't need to go anywhere else, except for a bit of warm-weather training. My whole family's here. My coach is here."

Lewis-Francis has spent the past nine years working with his coach, Steve Platt, at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, just six miles down the A34 from his Darlaston home. If only Chambers had stayed with Mike McFarlane in Haringey, rather than link up with the Ukrainian sprint guru Remi Korchemny in San Francisco, then the positive test he gave for tetrahydrogestrinone would probably not be casting such a cloud over his future, and over British athletics.

"It's a bit of a heart-breaker," Lewis-Francis mused. "It was exciting to run against Dwain. I know a lot of people who came to meetings just to see the two of us racing against each other. Obviously that's going to be gone if he gets banned.

"The whole thing has stabbed the sport in the heart. Athletics was on the way up and all of a sudden this big scandal came along. People who don't really know athletics are going to think that everyone is a cheat, but there are clean athletes out there who train hard. I've just finished a training session and it's not easy.

"The cheats never prosper. Even if you're cheating and you're getting away with it, you're going to die of a heart attack. You will always get caught out if you're cheating, one way or another. Me, I'll piss in anybody's jar. You can test me all day, every day."

For Lewis-Francis, the sweet smell of Olympic success would be preferable to the whiff of scandal. It compounded his frustration at the World Championships in August that the 100m gold was won in 10.07sec by Kim Collins, the Commonwealth champion from St Kitts. Lewis-Francis beat the featherweight flyer at the Grand Prix meeting in Ostrava in June, clocking 10.07sec. He also won in Oslo, but finished his season bringing up the rear at the London Grand Prix (10.4), in Zurich (10.20) and in his World Championship semi-final (10.44).

"At the start of the season I was just on top of the world," he reflected. "I felt as fit as a fiddle. I was out there thinking, 'I'm going to have a great season'. But, like I say, I did too much. I tried at the end of the season, but I was just knackered. I had no strength. I had nothing left.

"It all started to go wrong at the Paris Grand Prix in July. I had to run in the rain and I came fourth. I was thinking, 'What's going on? Everything's going backwards'. I had a big gold 'No 1' pinned on my vest and I was thinking, 'Everyone's out to beat me now'. I've got to hold my hand up: the pressure got to me. But I'm only 21. I'm learning as I go along."

To prove the point, the Birchfield Harrier intends to scale down his indoor season to possibly just one race: the 60m in the Norwich Union British Grand Prix at the National Indoor Arena on 20 February. "My main focus will be on my training, on getting ready for the Olympics," Lewis-Francis vowed. "I believe I can bring home a medal." Home to Darlaston, that is - to the heart of the Black Country.