It seems harder now than ever before to find sporting role models. The tabloids consistently feed on stories of sportsmen brought low by sex, drugs, and corruption. Over the summer, however, Britain finally found sporting heroes whose commitment and talent could not be questioned; the Olympics in Beijing excited the whole country and bolstered its national pride.
Yet Britain’s Olympic results could have been even better. Whilst Team GB was failing to make any real impact on the track, one of the best sprinters of our times was sitting at home watching on TV. Dwain Chambers was banned from the Olympics after failing a drug test in 2003. Since then, he has come to symbolise the problem of drug-related cheating in athletics. Not many have shown sympathy to the sprinter from Islington. Not only has he suffered the frustration of being unable to fulfil his Olympic dreams, he has become a focal point of the war against drugs in sport.
Nevertheless, there are many arguments in support of Chambers that have gone unheard, and whilst he does not claim innocence, he does have a point to prove and a story to tell. This was, he says, one of the main reasons why he came to the Oxford Union last Thursday.
‘No matter what I say about the rules, I failed to comply with them’
“I want to give people an insight into my life and hopefully put on a good show,” Chambers declares. He appears nervous but excited as I meet with him shortly before he will address the Union. Though he strolls in with the arrogant swagger we associate with many international sprinters, he speaks in a calm and humble manner, admitting to finding public speaking far more nerve-wracking than the sport he knows best.
“This is the unknown. During the 100 metres I feel in control. But I’m nervous because I have been invited to a place I never thought I would visit. This is the great Oxford Union. So many famous and important people have spoken in this building. I feel honoured to have been asked to speak.”
When confronted with the inevitable question about his drug ban, Chambers trots out his standard answer. Though he has uttered this same response countless times over the last few years, his words do not lack passion. “No matter what I say about the rules, I failed to fully comply by them. The rules were already in place before I chose to go down that road. Ultimately it ended my Olympic dream.” With his agent hovering alongside, Chambers is quick to add a plug. “All my opinions can be found in my forthcoming book.”
It is hard to deny Chambers’ wish to offer his side of the story. “At the moment people have only been fed information by the press and haven’t heard my point of view. Hence why I am doing an evening like tonight, to try and sway people’s perception about me and to try and get them to know me for who I am, and to make them understand I am normal like everybody else.”
‘Drugs don’t work, use me as a reference point’
Chambers becomes increasingly roused when asked to offer any advice for aspiring athletes who contemplate the use of steroids or other drugs. “For one, they don’t work. Use me as a reference point. Believe in your own heart that you can go out and achieve. Once you start believing someone else’s dream you are going to go and ruin your career. If you’re born with a talent and the ability to go out and compete, then you can achieve any goal you want to.”
There have been comparisons drawn between Chambers’ case and that of 400m runner Christine Ohuruogu. She missed three drug tests, and was banned from competing for one year. Yet her Olympic ban was overturned, and she came back from Beijing with a gold medal. Chambers seems genuinley happy for Ohuruogu, who has gone through a similar experience to him. But there is still an underlying anger. He can still picture himself with a gold medal round his neck.
“A part of wishes it was me, but at the same time, mine and Christine’s situaton are different. I was caught taking drugs, but her situation was different and we must give her the benefit of the doubt. A strong part of me still feels that the courts should have given me a second chance as well, because that’s what Christine was given. She was given a second chance, and she was able to go on to become World and olympic champion. But I don’t have any disagreements with her. I see her all the time on the track, and im very happy for her.”
Although Chambers claims that he has come to terms with his punishment and wants only to look ahead, the scars remain unhealed and unconcealed. In the course of a relatively short conversation, he reveals a deep self-contradiction.
‘If I had gone to the Olympics, I would have finished second or third’
He expresses his frustration at missing out on his ‘Olympic dream’, but he also seems to be attempting to convince himself that the continuation of the ban can be seen in a positive light. “This was Usain Bolt’s time. I believe it was his time. In some respects I’m kind of glad. I didn’t want to bring my issues to Beijing. One part of me is happy I didn’t go. Yes, I would have loved to compete, but I’m also glad I’m doing what I’m doing now, so I can change people’s perception of me by going out there and giving them an insight into my life.” Chambers nods as if he has persuaded himself, if not anybody else in the room.
“I firmly believe, that if I had gone to the Olympics, I would have finished second or third. There’s no way I would have run 9.69, but could I have run 9.89? There’s a strong possibility. But that opportunity has passed, and now I look to the future and next year’s world championship.”
If Chambers can achieve success in the sprinting world over the next few years, it will be an impressive feat for a man that has suffered so much criticism. And what about the London games in 2012? “I’ll be there in some capacity. I won’t be competing. But whatever happens, I will be there supporting.”