Ahead of this weekend’s national indoor athletics championships in Sheffield, and the latest chapter in the Dwain Chambers controversy, at last we find a voice of calm commonsense among the media coverage
Dwain Chambers will race 60 metres in Sheffield this weekend, as he is properly entitled to do.
But whether UK Athletics ends up selecting him for its team to go to next month’s World Indoor Championships in Valencia, or if Chambers does enough to claim a place in Britain’s Olympic team for the Beijing Games later in the year, surely that is entirely a matter for UKA and the BOA.
Chambers, to re-cap, is the former fastest teenager on the planet who in 2003 was banned for two years and stripped of his 2002 European 100 metres title when he was caught using a designer steroid, THG, a product specifically devised by Victor Conte and his Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco) to evade all drug testing processes.
Chambers’s first comeback after his ban, in 2006, despite a European sprint relay title (won amid a torrent of moral indignation from his relay team mate, Darren Campbell), stalled for lack of cash – Chambers was obliged to refund his ill-gotten gains, much of which he had blown on fast motorbikes and expensive lawyers.
Chambers went off to learn to be a wide receiver with NFL Europa, got injured and the NFL pulled the plug on its European operation, and so at 29 has returned to the track one more time.
Lately, UKA’s new chief executive Niels de Vos has echoed the complaints of Campbell, vowing to ban Chambers from the Sheffield races and all future British teams. De Vos’s sentiments, after too many years of fudge, compromise and sometimes outright encouragement for drugs cheats from sports administrators, were rightly welcomed by many of our columnist colleagues as being genuine and well-intentioned.
A phone call to UKA a week ago elicited a strange response from the press department when they were asked how they planned to to enforce any ban on Chambers legally, or how they could justify trying to punish him for his offence for a second time. For there was no detailed, thought-through answer to support de Vos’s important policy announcement. “We are trying to do the right thing,” was the sole justification.
This from an organisation that this decade has routinely picked in its teams Carl Myerscough, a shot putter who whenever he competes on the world stage wearing a GB vest mysteriously never manages to replicate the world-class form shown when he is based in the US. Myerscough competes for Britain despite having twice failed drugs tests in his early career and escaping a warranted lifetime ban on a technicality.
It is a justification offered by an organisation that continues to allow Mark Richardson, who in 1999 failed a drugs test for steroid nandrolone, to work as the public face of the sport, MC-ing from the in-field of major UKA events.
And it is a justification from an organisation which has also arranged for Linford Christie to be hired as a professional “mentor” to young sprinters, despite his adverse test result at the 1988 Olympics, his involvement in the 1994 “Up Your Gas” nonsense with then team mate Solomon Wariso, despite UK Sport records indicating at least two formal complaints about his conduct at doping control and out-of-competition tests, and despite a positive test for massive amounts of a banned steroid which helped the world’s fastest grandfather record his quickest ever 60m time at the beginning of an indoor season.
De Vos’s intentions cannot be questioned. His naivety can, however. Three decades of official complicity over drugs within athletics in Britain has left a twisted trail within a corrupted sport which taking harsh action now against a single individual can only result in accusations of hypocrisy and unfairness. At best.
Perhaps we ought not be too harsh on de Vos (pictured left), since he arrived at UKA from rugby union, a sport which only paid lip service to drug testing until a decade ago, and where some of its leading clubs and international teams openly endorse supplements companies and their products. Balco, of course, was ostensibly a supplements company, so it is little wonder that this is an area which the IOC has repeatedly warned sportsmen to avoid.
The excuse of inexperience cannot be applied to our sports journalist colleagues, few of whom have been near an athletics track from one Olympic Games to the next (unless it happens to surround a football pitch), but who nonetheless spewed out the usual vitriol about Chambers as they leapt in to endorse de Vos’s initial comments.
And then along came The Guardian‘s Lawrence Donegan, whose clear-sighted take on the situation is worth repeating here:
No one with the best interests of the sport at heart wants to see Chambers back in a British vest but those interests cannot and should not be placed above the law. You might think a two-year ban wasn’t enough of a punishment for the sprinter but the fact is he has served his time and cannot – should not – be retrospectively punished for his crime. De Vos would like to see the introduction of life suspensions for drug cheats.
“That would mean one or two people who accidentally get themselves into difficulty might be caught but I’d rather have that than allowing the guilty to get off,” he says. That is easy for De Vos to say but being a lily-livered liberal I’d feel squeamish at the thought of an athlete being banned for life, no questions asked, even though his or her “positive” test was the result not of drug-taking but of shoddy laboratory work. As for De Vos’s argument that “there is a problem of the law versus sport.
“If athletes continually use employment law to get around the law of sport there is nowhere for sport to fight”; is he suggesting that sport should be exempt from the laws that govern every other section of society? This is a ridiculous statement from someone who should know better, or at least who should know it is delusional to suggest the wider community ought to make sacrifices just because athletics was too complacent, and too corrupt, to fix its own problems.
Chambers, remember, has already been punished more extensively than most drug cheats because of the frankness of a BBC interview he gave following his ban. His admissions there led to retrospective stripping of other titles and cash prizes, and another round of moral outrage as sports officials and “experts” questioned Chambers’s right to suggest that to win an Olympic 100m gold medal, the taking of drugs was essential.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ben Johnson’s Olympic scandal. Subsequent discovery has shown six of the men in that infamous Seoul 100m final to have been implicated with drug-taking in some form or other. Then there was Florence Griffth-Joyner; Christie; Marion Jones and Katerina Thanou; Justin Gatlin… and those are just some of the athletes that we know about. So who’s to say that Chambers was wrong in his assertion?
Rightly, having done the time, Chambers was prepared to challenge any ban this weekend with a court order. When it comes to team selection, however, matters are entirely different.
Could Michael Owen or David Beckham threaten to sue the FA because Fabio Capello did not pick them for the England football team on Wednesday? Hardly, and even the most perverse of European courts would struggle to provide a human rights or employment law argument to support such a challenge.
Steve Cram, who as well as being a BBC television commentator also holds influential high office at the English Institute of Sport, put it this way this week: “You announce that the reasons for non-selection are to demonstrate the new hard line being taken on those who have been caught for taking drugs.
“But that has to be a consistent line if you choose to follow it. It is a serious change of direction for UK Athletics and will be a difficult one to maintain, but maintain it it must if it is to have any credibility.”
That consistency will be there for all to see when UKA first looks within itself, and then applies the same high moral rigour to its dealings with coaches, agents and others that it has sought to rediscover in its singling out of Chambers.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the policy or position of the SJA.
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