It is approaching eight years now since Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis settled into their starting blocks for the great Saturday night sprint showdown at the Mancunian Commonwealth Games. The young speed merchants appeared to have the world at their feet: Chambers, at 24 already a World Championship bronze medallist and Lewis-Francis, the 19-year-old Billy Whizz Kid from West Bromwich who was threatening to break through the 10 seconds barrier for the 100m. So what happened next? The gun fired and the world started to crumble for the Great British likely lads.
They limped off the track last and second last in the Commonwealth 100m final and have been trying to make up lost ground since. For Lewis-Francis, amid the injuries and the loss of form there has been an Olympic gold medal-winning moment: the night in Athens when he held off Maurice Greene on the last leg of the 4x100m relay final. Six years on from that ultimate high, the Birchfield Harrier is emerging from the low of being dropped from the Lottery funding list last autumn. Now 27, he is playing catch up on his old rival.
The ground that Lewis-Francis needs to make up was clear to see in the blue sprint strip in the centre of the English Institute of Sport arena yesterday on the opening day of the Aviva World Trials and UK Championships. When the gun sounded for the men's 60m final, Chambers was up and on his way to a clear victory while the West Midlander with the double-barrelled name and the big, broad shoulders was battling to make one of the minor steps on the podium.
Chambers claimed victory in 6.50sec, securing a place in the British team for the World Indoor Championships in Doha next month with the fastest time in the world this year. Lewis-Francis missed the selection cut and the medal boat, finishing fourth in 6.67sec – behind Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, an impressive runner-up in 6.55sec, a world class lifetime best, and Craig Pickering, who clocked 6.60sec in third
For Chambers, now 31 and four years down the comeback trail following his drugs ban, it was confirmation that he happens to be in the same kind of scorching form that took him to European indoor gold in Turin last year – a little shy of the speed that took him to a European record of 6.42sec in the semi-finals in Italy but 0.01sec faster than his winning time in the Sheffield trials.
"It's nice but it's still early days," the Belgrave Harrier said. "I'm sure the Americans are going to come out and do something crazy, but it's nice to know I have made the team and can hopefully focus my attention towards Doha now.
"I ran the 6.42 last year and there were some areas I needed to correct, and obviously I've got these young guys who have a bit more energy than I do nowadays, so I have to make damage where I can. I've tried to improve my start and use my strength and natural ability to carry me through and it seems to be working so far."
Not that Chambers is working on anything quite as ambitious as he professed to be this time last year. Back then, he spoke of his "Project Bolt" which fell somewhat short with sixth place and a time of 10.00sec in the World Championship 100m final, behind Usain Bolt's lightning quick 9.58sec. "There's no project this year," Chambers said yesterday, chuckling heartily. "I'm just doing the best I can."
Alluding to his doping past, he added: "I just wish I'd done things a lot better a long time ago. It's taken me 32 years to realise that. It's made me realise what I almost lost but I'm back here now and getting a lot of support from people, athletes and the general public."
In turn, the reformed drugs offender is keen to offer moral support to his one-time rival. "Mark's had a hard time," Chambers said of Lewis-Francis. "He's been riddled with injury and lost his Lottery funding. It's been a turning point for him to find the motivation to resume his career, which he loves. I'm just glad he's got back and hasn't given up."
As for Lewis-Francis, he took his defeat on the chin. "I think the nerves got the best of me today," he reflected. "It's been a long time since I've been performing at this level. It's not easy being an athlete without funding now, but no excuses. Today the better people won.
"I've got to walk away from this with some positives. I'm injury free and I'm running consistent times. It's been a rocky few years but I've come out of the other side with a little smile on my face."