Dwain Chambers: 'I realise what I almost lost – that kills me'
The British sprinter has finally made a clean break from his drug-tainted past and, fit and firing, he heads to the World Indoors relishing being back in the fold and going for gold. He talks to Simon Turnbull
Thursday 11 March 2010
It has taken eight years, a great deal of heartache and not a little shame, but Dwain Chambers has finally made a completely clean break from his drugs-tainted past. The fastest man in Europe begins his chase for World Indoor Championship gold in Doha tomorrow with the full blessing of UK Athletics rather than as the curse of the domestic governing body of track and field. The reason? Chambers has severed all contact with Victor Conte, the Californian chemist who fuelled him with a Frankenstein-like cocktail of drugs through the summer track seasons of 2002 and 2003.
It is seven years now since Chambers tested positive for the designer steroid Tetrahydrogestrinone and various other illicit products of Conte's Balco factory. It is four years since he first hit the comeback trail after serving a two-year suspension. And yet the 31-year-old north Londoner has continued to run under a cloud of controversy. In 2008, when he returned to the track after failing to make the American football grade with the Hamburg Sea Devils, he was treated like some kind of demonic creature by UK Athletics, whose chief executive, Niels de Vos, tried to ban him from the trials for that year's World Indoor Championships and reluctantly rubber-stamped his selection for the trip to Valencia only because he was obliged to so. There were no great celebrations among the Great Britain team officials when Chambers proceeded to take the silver medal in the 60m final in Spain.
Then there was the unseemly trail of headlines that followed the Belgrave Harrier to the European Indoor Championships in Turin last year – "I was a walking junkie," "I took 300 different drugs" – courtesy of the newspaper serialisation of his autobiography. Chambers proceeded to strike gold in a Great Britain vest, clocking a European indoor record of 6.42sec in his 60m semi-final. He then revealed that he had renewed his links with Conte – "on an educational basis". Charles van Commenee, a month into his job as head coach of UK Athletics, was not amused.
Yet 12 months on Chambers and the national governing body have kissed and made up. Before heading off to Doha, where he will be one of three British hopes for gold – together with Jessica Ennis in the pentathlon and Jenny Meadows in the 800m – the errant prodigal son was made welcome at the UK Athletics offices in Solihull. It was the first time he had been invited into "the lions' den". A changed man, no longer raging against the bureaucratic machinery, Chambers admits that a condition of his acceptance has been a severance of all links with Conte.
"Yes, I've had to do that," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, that relationship had to be terminated and it is terminated. I just want a clear run now. I just want to concentrate on my running. I've had enough of the past. I know it's always going to be referred to but I just want to concentrate on what happens in 2010."
It was Van Commenee who insisted on Chambers making a complete break from his tainted past, after the Dutchman's first assignment as head coach, the European Indoor Championships last year, was overshadowed by "the history of Dwain Chambers", as he puts it. "We spoke the week after Turin," Van Commenee says. "He has made some smart decisions since then. The fact that he's been in the lion's den should tell you something."
It tells us that Chambers has done some maturing, that he has moved on and come to terms with his lot – as a former doping offender precluded from running for Britain in the Olympic arena and from making a lucrative living on the European circuit
"A lot happened in the past and I just want to use this opportunity to put all that behind me," Chambers says. "For me to be invited to the UKA offices and accepted there was a great feeling, a great honour. We're working on building relationships and trying to do things right and get myself back in the fold as an athlete. At the end of the day, I want people to know me as just being an athlete. That's what I enjoy doing: running fast. Obviously it's taken a bit of time, but we're slowly getting there.
"It means more to me now because I realise what I almost lost and that killed me. That hurt a lot. I run with meaning now and I enjoy it. I've got three kids now and they are my motivation. My life now is just geared towards making sure they have a bright future. My kids are enjoying watching me run, and that's satisfaction for me.
"They watch me on TV and after I've run I get on the phone and call them. For me, that's a huge reward. That's a huge part of why I've got myself back and why I enjoy it more. Every step I take on that track has more meaning. It means their future, their life. I'm living mine but it's a different purpose for me.
"I've got different thinking now, different priorities. I've got nappies to change, dishes to wash. It's good. I live day by day now and that's allowed me to be a bit more relaxed about my approach to my running. I've settled down. I'm just concentrating my mind on what's important.
"There's always life after mistakes and this is about how well you come back from those mistakes. It's a strong message to put out to the youngsters. I don't want them to ever go down the road I went down because it's not nice. If I can use this as an example, to steer them in the right direction, then I'm achieving another goal."
Chambers' goal in Doha is the 60m gold medal. He goes into the heats tomorrow morning ranked second, with a season's best of 6.50sec –- 0.01sec behind Ivory Williams of the United States. If he emerges victorious from Saturday's final, it will be his first global title. His first major title was the European outdoor 100m crown in 2002, when he was doped up to the eyeballs on Conte's chemicals.
"This would mean more because I know how I'm going about it," Chambers says. "The past actions weren't right, in any way, shape or form. I hurt a lot of people along the way and this process is about building bridges and making friends again – and just believing in myself. That's what's made the difference as I just believe in what I've got. I've got a natural ability and I want to make sure I utilise it before it expires."
Chambers has a new advisor, Siza Agha, a barrister, but insists he will not be mounting another legal challenge to the British Olympic Association bye-law that bans athletes with doping records from Olympic selection. "As far as I'm concerned, we've lived that life and it just didn't work for me," Chambers says. "It's not healthy – for me or the sport. I'm just going to concentrate on the opportunities that I do have."
Still, does it not make him bitter that Justin Gatlin, as a US athlete, can return from a drugs ban this summer and aim for Olympic selection for his country in 2012? "Not bitter," Chambers says. "Not any more. I had an opportunity to sit down and analyse my situation and there's only two ways I can go about it. You can either choose to be bitter about things or you just try and be positive about it. These are the cards I've been dealt, so I'm just going to use them to the best of my ability and concentrate on running."
The great irony, of course, is that for the most part Chambers has been running faster on natural ability than he did on steroids, giving the lie to his formerly-held assertion that you had to be in with the druggies to have any chance of winning.
"I have more faith in the sport now," Chambers reflects. "And I have more faith in myself. I respect myself more. I know what I have naturally and the road I went down was never the right road to go down. I learned from that hugely.
"Now it's a case of thinking about what I do have and going about the process in the right way. It has been a longer process, but this time around I am not lying to myself any more." Nor to the watching world, he might add.
Highs and lows: Dwain Chambers' turbulent career
* Born 5 April 1978, Islington
* August 1998 Wins 100m silver at the European Championships.
* September Takes 4x100m gold at the Commonwealth Games.
* August 1999 Wins bronze in the 100m and silver in the 4x100m in Seville at the World Championships.
* September 2000 Comes fourth in the 100m at Olympic Games in Sydney.
* August 2002 Wins gold in both the 100m and 4x100m at the European Championships in Munich.
* November 2003 Given a two-year ban from athletics – and a lifetime ban from the Olympics – after testing positive for the steroid THG. Stripped of the medals he won since 2002 (his two golds at the European Championships). The rest of the 4x100m team also lost their medals as a result of Chambers' involvement.
* June 2006 Cleared to return to athletics by the IAAF. Finishes third in the 100m at the British Grand Prix in his first race back.
* August Wins gold in the 4x100m at the European Championships in Gothenburg. Team-mate Darren Campbell refuses to join in the celebrations due to Chambers' inclusion in the team.
* March 2007 Joins German NFL Europa side Hamburg Sea Devils.
* June Left jobless following the collapse of the NFL Europa franchise.
* March 2008 Joins rugby league side Castleford on a month's trial, but fails to win a full-time contract.
* May Appeal to overturn Olympic ban is rejected by the High Court.
* March 2009 Wins gold in the 60m at the European Indoor Championships.
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