JAMIE WEBB meets Dwain Chambers at the Union and tries to seperate the fact from the fiction.
Who is Dwain Chambers?
Drug cheat or remorseful athlete? Genuinely contrite, or well practiced performer?
Whichever it is, it must be exhausting. Every word and gesture can be interpreted for double meaning. His life is defined by his decision in 2001 to take performance enhancing drugs, and his subsequent ban in 2003.
He moved to America to be the best, and met the ‘nutritionist’ Victor Conte, who gave him the answer in a pill.
“Look out for people who come out of nowhere with a brown paper bag”, Chambers warned.
“It ruined my career for 12 years”, he says. That much can be believed.
As his talk at the Cambridge Union began, there was the customary technical fault. A delay on the microphone made it sound like he was speaking with two voices, as if the two sides of Chambers’ persona were pulling apart from each other.
Behind him were banners for the two organisations he had come to represent, Chambers for Sport (bit ironic, I thought, given that many wish he was out of athletics altogether), and Teens Unite Fighting Cancer, (which to my shame just made me think of Lance Armstrong, and the smokescreen that his charitable endeavours gave him).
This is the paradox of Dwain Chambers: damned if he tries to make ammends and damned if he doesn’t, forever dragging the weight of his drug ban around with him like the chains of Marley’s ghost.
Chambers arrived with his barrister and manager, Siza Agha, in tow. Agha played the role of Chambers’ interlocutor, starting off with a bizarre compilation of quotes from the Great Men of History about ‘mistakes’.
Oscar Wilde (“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes”), Winston Churchill (“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from them”), and Nelson Mandela (“Unlike some politicians, I can admit a mistake”) were all brought out in Chambers’ defense, a surreal elevation of Chambers to political and cultural sainthood, pleading the case that even the best slip along the way.
We were then given a clearly rehearsed and whistle-stop tour of Chambers’ early life, full of “responsibilities, a contract with Puma. I couldn’t just be a kid.”
When asked about his early successes though, he’s oddly uncertain. Was his World Championship bronze medal in 1999 won when he was 21, or 22? Where was it? Agha has to tell him: it was in Seville, and he was 21. This was all before the doping.
The talk then moved onto this defining moment of Chambers’ career. Agha posed empty, ‘how did that feel?‘ questions, provoking plenty of studied pauses and upturned looks from Chambers. He said he “never realised he was going to the dark side”, and that at the height of his doping “was in the hospital 4 times a week so I didn’t get a blood clot”.
He enjoyed the winning, but felt so guilty about competing with his best friend Christian Malcolm that he’d avoid even running in the same races.
Keeping his drugs in the fridge of his UK home meant turning friends and family away, and a gradual turning in upon himself.
Being caught was painted as a relief, the only way for the doping to stop. But the aftermath took it’s toll. “Have you ever had that dream when you’re falling?”, he asks his audience. “Well I’ve been falling for 12 years.”
Then, according to the night’s narrative, Chambers’ did something unusual: he came clean and told the truth. Agha asks him whether it was the right decision.
Another prepared pause follows. “It was rough because I put the sport in a position where I ruined its image.”
It certainly can’t be said that Chambers picked the easy option. His confession meant receiving a BOA life ban from the Olympics. The system allowed an appeal for those who denied intentionally taking a banned substance, but not for those who confessed, actively encouraging deception.
The ruling was overturned in 2012, just in time for Chambers to compete in London. It was worth it, “just to hear the crowd call my name again.”He flashes a wide grin. “I’m easily pleased.”
Anecdotes about his failed stints in NFL and Rugby League (“these guys are conditioned to take hits. I’m conditioned to run in a straight line”) raised laughs, and as a stilted presentation moved onto a seemingly unending Q&A (the whole event lasted over two hours), you could feel the crowd warm to Chambers.
To hear him talk about his recent rehabilitation in the sport sounded a world away from Darren Campbell snubbing a lap of honour with Chambers after their World Championship relay win in 2006. “When I go to competitions I don’t feel like the elephant in the room anymore.”
After the main talk I ask Chambers whether he ever faces cynicism about the motivations for his charity work. “Not at all. They approached me with open arms, and I accepted.”
And does he still get offers to take drugs? He is emphatic in his denial. “No, never. People don’t come anywhere near me with it. They know I won’t do it again.”
It’s difficult not to be convinced by Chambers. He is a figure wholly defined by doping. He’ll never escape the cynicism of his detractors, and he’ll never not be thought of as a ‘drug cheat’.
But it’s hard to see what more he could be doing to make up for his mistake. That word again. Mistake. He’s not Mandela, Churchill, or Oscar Wilde, but on his rehabilitation he comes out with a good quote of his own.
“Just saying sorry is putting a plaster on a very deep wound. Aplogising is your actions.”