'Clean machines' can reach the top despite drug cheats, says Gardener

The Bath Bullet knows some runners ruin the show but insists natural talent is still able to make it in the fast lane
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The Independent Online

Jason Gardener has been here before. Depressingly so. Sitting in a corner of Browns Bar and Brasserie, across the street from Bath's seventh-century Abbey, he recalls with the wryest of smiles the angst he articulated exactly 12 months previously, on the eve of last year's National Indoor Athletics Championships in Sheffield.

On that occasion, the "Bath Bullet" was still in the firing line of top-level sprint competition, but wearily so. He spoke then of how year after year of flogging himself in training only to miss out on medals, on team selection and on places in major finals to athletes who were powered by something more than natural talent had worn down his motivation to its last thread. He spoke of his fear that his young training partner, Craig Pickering, would have to endure the same frustrations, the same injustices in his life in the unlevelinternational fast lane.

Twelve months on, Gardener has hung up his racing spikes. He now works for the Youth Sport Trust, helping to inspire and develop young sporting talent in the South-west, with specific direction towards this year's UK School Games, which take place in Bath and Bristol from 28 to 31 August. He has just spent the morning at the Games launch in the chandeliered splendour of the Pump Room, next to the Roman Baths in the heart of his home city. "I want to get the message across that you can get to the top in sport if you have the application," he told the young hopefuls in attendance. "I'm a local lad, from Bath, and I got there. It can be done."

Sadly, the message is also out there that it can be done by foul means as well as fair. Tomorrow Gardener will be back at the National Indoor Championships in Sheffield, this time as part of the backroom team supporting Pickering in his quest to qualifyfor the World Indoor Championships in Valencia next month. Pickering will have to win the 60m to be sure of a place in the Great Britain team.

In his way stands Dwain Chambers, the tainted speed merchant who served a two-year ban for using the designer steroid known as tetrahydrogestrinone, and whose attempt to make a second comeback, after a foray into American football, hasmet with fierce but thus far unenforceable opposition from UK Athletics, the domestic governing body of track and field.

Inevitably, the national media spotlight is not on the bright news for Bath and Bristol but on the looming shadow of Chambers' appearance at the English Institute of Sport indoor track in Sheffield. Gardener gives a sigh of resignation at the mention of his old rival. "Dwain has cheated," he says. "He's admitted that, but legally he has a right to compete. They are the rules – and as Craig has said, he's just another person to beat. But I'd like to see those rules changed. I fully applaud the stance of UK Athletics. Niels de Vos is quite new in the role of chief executive and he clearly has a passion to make sure we don't welcome with open arms the people who are ruining the sport for everyone else. What needs to be put in place is a legal framework that supports his policies.

"I've always spoken out against drugs because I've been on the wrong end of it. I've missed out on finals at major games or medals at major championships because of it. From an athlete who's suffered, I want to see the bans becoming much more severe or becoming bans for life.

"Two years is not long enough. If you've been on a steroid over a number of years, the benefits of being on that programme will still be in your system after a couple of years.

"What will I do if I see Dwain in Sheffield? Well, he has committed a big offence in our sport, but he's not the only one. There have been loads of them and they've been welcomed back. Dwain hasn't killed anybody. If I see him I'll say hello, but that doesn't mean that what he did wasn't wrong in my eyes. I missed out on going to the World Championships because of it. I was one place short of making the team for Paris in 2003.

"It also happened to me at the World Championships in 2005. I just missed out on the 100m final, and two of the guys who beat me in my semi-finals were Justin Gatlin and Aziz Zakari, who were subsequently done for drugs. Zakari also beat me in my semi-final atthe Olympics in 2004. Maybe I would have made the World Championships final, the Olympic final. But that's gone. My time has gone.

"But we have to do something to protect the athletes who are in the system now, and to give those kids who I've been working with through the Youth Sport Trust a realistic opportunity, through hard work and talent, of making it to the top."

At 32, and still as slender as he was when he sped to a fourth successive European indoor 60m title in Birmingham last March, Gardener could hardly be described as an old-timer – certainly not in the class of the Private Godfrey character portrayed in Dad's Army by another celebrated old boy of Beechen Cliff School in Bath, the late Arnold Ridley. It is typical of the self-effacing, thoroughly decent individual that he happens to be, though, that he fears he might sound like some kind of bitter veteran. He has every reason to be so, but he also has reason to be proud of the respectful glances that are shot in his direction as he quietly goes about his daily business in his beautiful, beloved home city.

For all the medals and the prize money that Chambers, Gatlin and the rest of the drugged-up cheats claimed at his expense, Gardener has something more precious to show for the sporting life he spent not just as the speeding Bath Bullet but also as the graceful, smooth-striding Clean Machine. Fittingly, he also has the ultimate prize: the Olympic gold medal he earned as the lead-off man in Britain's victorious 4 x 100m relay team at the Athens Olympics four years ago. He can show that with genuine pride to his wife, Nancy, and their two children, Molly, three, and Harry, 11 months. Unlike Chambers and the rest, Gardener can also put his head on the pillow at night with the cleanest of consciences.

"I'm so happy that I made the right decisions in my career," he reflects. "I had good people around me with good principles: my coaches, Dave Lease and Malcolm Arnold – people who have invested time in young people in the right way, and helped me go down a path that was the correct way.

"The good message to come from it, which I can say to the kids, is that it is possible. It's hard, and it'll be harder if you're going to be competing against people who take drugs. But it is possible to still end up with the best prize in sport because I have done it. That's a real, strong message, I guess, for me to portray to them – if you look at the parallels of my life and Dwain's, especially if you look where he was. He had Dwain's World. He had the world at his feet.

"And I'm sure before he went down the route that he took, Dwain could have been the best sprinter in the world. Who knows? Maybe he was the best sprinter in the world when he was clean. But who knows where my 9.98sec truly ranked me?"

Technically, the 9.98sec that Gardener clocked for 100m in Lausanne in 1999 ranks him third in the UK all-time list for the event. But then the two names above his – those of Linford Christie (9.87sec) and Chambers (9.97) – are both accompanied by asterisks, the lingering stain of having registered a failed drugs test.

"Thank you very much," Gardener says, a little surprised, it seems, but genuinely grateful that the list and the black marks upon it happen to be mentioned.

"I think to most people I'm the British No 1, because my career is not tarnished with that brush. You're not the first to mention that. Many people in the sport have reinforced that message and I'm very proud of that."