Pat Butcher on Chambers


If Dwain Chambers has learned nothing else from his drug-induced Calvary, he has certainly mastered the art of keeping himself in the news. Despite a startling performance in the European indoor championships last weekend, he has been subjected to further vilification by national and international federation officials following publication of his book Race Against Me.

Now he has revealed that he is still in touch with Victor Conte, the doyen of dope -pushers, whose BALCO empire collapsed when Chambers, among others was busted for taking products supplied by Conte.

Chambers claims that the renewed links with Conte are on an “educational basis,” ie how to use a high-altitude simulator, but even his one champion in UK Athletics, new head coach Charles van Commenee is requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the Conte issue. So this particular pot is still boiling merrily away.

The watch-word for those accused or even proven to have taken drugs is usually, Deny, Deny, Deny! Marion Jones, for example is still at it, recently telling the High Priestess of the public confession, Oprah Winfrey that she never knowingly ingested. And this despite, among other condemnatory evidence, the publication of pictures of her kitchen calendar, with dates and dosages marked out.

Jones has chosen the haven of retirement from which to peddle her (self-) delusion. But, since he is still competing (with much distinction) the candour with which Chambers continues to speak about his drug-taking has made him an authority (and media) scapegoat. But he has adhered to his “honesty is the best policy,” and taken another saying, ‘publish and be damned,’ to its logical end.

Confessional writing since the time of John Henry Newman in the mid-19th century has often been known as an ‘Apologia’ - an apology or defence. Chambers’ confessional book mounts a spirited defence of his admissions of guilt, and after a mandatory sprint through the difficult childhood, the rest falls well short of being an apology for a book.

As everyone probably knows by now, Chambers was caught up in the BALCO affair, got busted for drugs in 2003, and served a two year suspension before coming back in 2006, and winning sprint relay gold in the European Championships that year. Unlike many druggies before him, Chambers went on the record with details of his misdemeanours, which enraged the national and international federations, who demanded he pay back prize money earned while taking drugs, and then looked on with satisfaction as a cabal of meet promoters conspired to keep Chambers out of top-class independent competition.

A British Olympic Association bye-law prevented him competing at the Olympic Games in Beijing last summer. But he cannot be exempted from other championships, and last weekend in Torino, he won the European indoor 60 metres title, running 6.42sec, third fastest in history, in the process.

But the publication of extracts from his book overshadowed the championships, and resulted in more criticism for Chambers, with the suggestion from unnamed officials that he might be banned again, this time for bringing the sport into disrepute.

There are those who might think that no major sport in the world, having long sold its soul to sponsors and television (while wilfully ignoring the extent of drug-taking for years) would dare accuse anyone of bringing their sport into disrepute. Yet I don’t think that this was intended to be an example of post-modern irony.

It is credit to the pre-drugs Chambers that he did more with his young life than become a statistic, another black kid with an absent father and a chip on his shoulder. Although as some of his formative experiences and the title of the book suggest, there are still strong racist elements in British society, not least among its police forces.

Chambers reiterates his admissions of guilt at drug-taking, and traces his long, frustrated road to his decision to start ‘taking’. He then details life after his ‘bust,’ the attempts to get into American Football and Rugby League, and the subsequent returns to track, each time with improved results; coupled with the willingness to work with authorities, to figure out how he managed to avoid getting caught, despite regular testing while taking 300 doses in a year.

He also asks, quite pertinently, why he is condemned when people like Juergen Groebler and Eckert Arbeit, coaches from the criminally irresponsible East German state doping system are not only allowed to work in Britain, but actively sought and welcomed. Groebler has even been awarded the Order of the British Empire!

Because the thrust of this 300 page book is that, yes, he did wrong, but he’s fessed up to it, while others haven’t, and he’s been made the target for vilification by people who, for one reason or another are not exactly saints themselves.

On that score, my spies in Torino for the European indoors tell me that the person most responsible for pushing further punishment for Chambers was Sebastian Coe, incandescent at the myriad revelations about his private life. None of this is news, since it has been reported before. But getting it all assembled in half a dozen pages, as Chambers has done, has clearly enraged the good Lord.

For those wondering how Chambers came by this litany of information, look no further than Peter Hildreth, who supplies an afterword for the book on the history of drugs. Hildreth is an intriguing character. A three-time Olympian high hurdler half a century ago, and subsequently athletics correspondent for the Daily Telegraph for over 30 years, Hildreth, now 80, was the first person in the British media to proclaim the extent of drug-taking in athletics. His opinion, as he told anyone who was prepared to listen, was based on his own experience of international athletes, himself included, being prepared to do almost anything, “to get an edge”.

One of Hildreth’s major contentions is that any athlete coming into the sport in the last 40 years or so (which would include Coe) is entering a contaminated field, and is forced to follow suit. He even managed to get some of this in print, past dozing sub-editors of his paper. But athletes chose to ignore it, rather than open what may have proved to be a large can of worms.

A quietly spoken patrician character, Hildreth’s vociferous and monomaniacal claims made him the target of derision among many of his colleagues. It now turns out that Hildreth was closer to the truth than any of us, and I speak as one who co-wrote a series of national newspaper articles about drugs in British and international athletics as far back as 1989.

As for Chambers on the competitive front, the organisers of the Berlin Golden League have broken ranks with the rest of the EuroMeetings group, and say they will welcome him in the Olympiastadion on June 14. But while Chambers can also compete there in the world championships in August, should he qualify, UK Athletics has made it known that he will not be part of the relay, the excuse being that a squad is to be nurtured for the Olympic Games in London 2012, by which time they fervently hope that Chambers, 31 next month, will be retired.

But for now, he soldiers on. I have written elsewhere about the posse of superannuated stars, nowadays infesting the media, who are working themselves into self-righteous anger at Chambers. If they had an ounce of journalistic awareness among them, they would realise that Chambers’ writings and pronouncements, not to mention his superlative running, are all currently targeted at just one thing - selling books.