The Nick Townsend column: Athletics has to share guilt with cheating cheetah

The Chambers affair is a sordid fiasco but the sport itself must join him in the dock until it deals properly with drugs
Click to follow

Dwain Chambers, ostensibly a member of Belgrave Harriers, but henceforth running in the vest of the People's Pariahs, will represent Great Britain at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia next month, but has not been invited to the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham this weekend "to protect the image of the sport", according to the organisers. Only in athletics, many will conclude as they survey the latest developments in this Mad Hatter's tea party of the sport's administration.

It would be easy to ridicule the week's events, particularly when, with no apparent sense of irony, Chambers' PR agent Kevin Lueshing asks us to consider such legal niceties as his client's "restraint of trade" and the infringement of his "human rights". Notwithstanding such utterances, a fewfair-minded observers mayhave harboured a scintilla of sympathy for the sprinter;until perhaps this self-serving response from him: "I did the crime. I've done my time. And I've moved on. But I'm being made to feel like a leper."

Except drugs cheats can never simply move on. His "mistake" – a bland euphemism employed by Chambers for attempting to defraud the system, and hence his rivals – will live with him, and others, as he should be reminded by Christian Malcolm, Marlon Devonish and Darren Campbell, fellow members of the British 4 x 100m relay team who because of him had to hand back gold and silver medals, won at European and world championships respectively.

And what of the "young, upwardly mobile, committed athletes", according to UK Athletics, that Chambers is depriving of "this key development opportunity". While he pursues his "right" to run in Valencia, they are left at home.

Chambers' plea is that he has not fulfilled his potential. But he surely forfeited his right to pursue that when he travelled to the United States and availed himself of the steroid tetrahydroges-trinone (THG), the "designer"drug at the centre of the Balco doping scandal. Crucially, it was designed not to be detected, and it wasn't until 2003. Chambers was target-tested, banned for two years, and later admitted he had been taking THG as far back as the spring of 2002.

Everyone expected him to proceed on a walk down that one-way street of shame to obscurity, via American football. Only Chambers was not so obliging. But when shame is no longer any impediment to the continuation of a political or business career, why should it be so in sport? UK Athletics, supine in the face of threatened legal action from Chambers' team, and hamstrung by their own rules, selected him for Valencia, all the while protesting that they really, really didn't want to do this (in doing so laying themselves open to the charge of double standards by naming the shot-putter Carl Myerscough in the team, given that he had once been similarly banned).

Yet whether you align yourself with Roger Black, Dame Kelly Holmes and Lord Coe, or join with those who plead for the defence, such as John Regis, there at least appears a common sense of purpose; the restoration to health of a sport whose integritycontinues to be exposed by its failure to deal effectively with this issue. As the fervent anti-doping campaigner and double Olympic champion Coe laments: "My sport is incredibly fragile at the moment."

One legacy of the Chambers affair is that it can only hasten change in the rules governing the selection of national teams, an area which is already being reviewed by Niels de Vos, UK Athletics' chief executive.

As for Chambers himself, the 29-year-old may have squeezed back into non-Olympic competition contention as the portcullis drops, but Beijing frustratingly eludes him. The BOA may have allowed appeals against their stance of a lifetime ban for such offences, notably from Christine Ohuruogu, if "mitigating circumstances" can be proved. Fortunately, even the most able of m'learned friends may struggle to propel the People's Pariah into the People's Republic... won't they?

Punchbag Ashton up for fight

The avuncular Brian Ashton readily accepts the punishment meted out to an England coach, of any sporting code, and recognises the unwritten element of his contract: that it is incumbent upon him to take the hits, like some human punchbag, even in the wake of victory.

As it is, the advice has scarcely been restrained since Rome: Ashton Must... Read The Riot Act (the headline over Will Greenwood's verdict) Ashton Must... Cure The Malaise (Brian Moore). Heaven help him if his decision to exchange Jonny Wilkinson's 67 caps of experience for novice Danny Cipriani for the closing minutes had ended with defeat against an ever-improving Italy. Even Ashton's remarkable equilibrium may have been tested as the wrath of an ex-international media pack assailed him.

If last Sunday at the Stadio Flaminio could be described as a hard day's night for England, it has been followed by a long week's thought for Ashton, with a rejuvenated France under their new coach, Marc Lièvremont, lying in wait.

The England coach must not only contemplate a dearth of leaders in his squad but also efficiently manage the assimilation of youth. It required nerve to press the 20-year-old Cipriani into service at that moment on Sunday after Wilkinson had demonstrated that the fire of invention still burns brightly within. Yet, though Jonny offered the rhetorical reflection "I'm on the way out, maybe," those words were uttered in the certain knowledge that the icon of three World Cups will not be jettisoned – yet. Not while he remains the best man for the task.

The brutal reality is that England would not have defeated Italy without him, but could have lost with his replacement, whose error brought the scores too close for comfort. But Cipriani is manifestly England's future, and Ashton must nurture him. Maybe at full-back initially, as Wasps' director of rugby, Ian McGeechan, contends. On the pitch, but out of the immediate firing line. Dilemmas, dilemmas. But, like any coach, Ashton would not have it any other way.

Foolish for fans to side with Blatter

Fan power. It's guaranteed to supply more megawatts than wind power in positive or – in the case of Bryan Robson – negative current. "The fans have made it impossible for me to stay," Captain Marvel claimed on his departure from Sheffield United. Democracy in the raw, it could be argued, though Robson might take a slightly more jaundiced view.

In similar vein, supporters' opposition may also help to scupper the Premier League's grand scheme of matches played before a global audience, although one suspects that for all the curiously worded pronouncements of Uefa's president Michel Platini (who used the chance to articulate a few prejudices about England) and now his Fifa counterpart Sepp Blatter (casting doubts over an England 2018 World Cup bid), this one will not go away but will reappear in a different guise.

As was suggested here last week, the plan may founder principally on a dearth of welcoming associations and host stadiums. If this is true and is allied to widespread opposition in England – although two top managers, Arsène Wenger and Avram Grant, while not exactly declaring "bring it on", contend that it is worthy of further investigation – then so be it.

But if I was as vociferously opposed as some, I would be more than a little troubled about taking up arms alongside Blatter. Isn't this the character whose name has become a metaphor for championing wacky ideas? So, we have a supposed crackpot proposal being condemned by a man famous for, well, crackpot proposals. It couldn't be Blatter is miffed he didn't think of it first, could it?