Dwain Chambers and the politics of drugs use

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The Mail and the Guardia are reporting this morning that the World Anti-Doping Agency has won its challenge the British Olympic Association’s lifetime ban on some athletes found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. Knowing that the decision was due, I recently read Dwain Chambers’ biography Race Against Me.

I write “some” deliberately. Of course, the BOA would strenuously deny that it applied its policy selectively. One compelling theme of Chambers’ book however is the arbitrariness of the BOA’s enforcement of the ban. He shows that where a person accused of drug use tells the BOA that a banned substance was in their body accidentally, as a result of a one-off fluke (which was Linford Christie’s line in both 1988 and 1999) or insists that they had innocent motives for repeatedly missing drugs tests (e.g. Christine Ohuruogu), the BOA does not impose a life-time ban. In practice, the ban is applied only to that smaller group of athletes who accept and admit their guilt.

The lawyer in me knows that there are all sorts of reasons why you might get to this situation. If a person says that they deliberately took drugs then the wrong they have committed is greater than that of someone who did so accidentally. In court cases about motive, juries always struggle to deciphere what a person intended. Because a positive drugs test will inevitably lead to suspension, it is usually open to any drugs user to say they were caught the very first time they cheated. Without a culture of whistleblowing in the sport, inevitably decision-makers have to take what they are told with a certain degree of trust.

But, however you get there, it’s offensive to penalise those who admit to drug taking while not penalising those (not Christie, of course, and not Ohuruogo, but others must exist) who take drugs and falsely deny that they did so deliberately.

The most interesting sections of the book are the one which deal with Chambers’ motives for drug-taking. A key moment for him was the 2001 World Championships at Edmonton, at which an injured Maurice Green won the 100 metres with a time of 9.82 seconds (three hundredths of a second outside his own world record), with another American Tim Montgomery in third. Chambers describes thinking: “By the time I’d run the first twenty metres I was done! What was happening? Within those first twenty metres the Americans Maurice Green and Tim Montgomery had taken yards out of the field … What were the Americans doing that I wasn’t?”

The following year, Chambers accepted an invitation to work with a Miami-based coach Remi Korchemny: as he explains the decision, to catch up with the American sprinters. Kirchemny introduced him in turn to the nutritionist Victor Conte, who told Chambers “You need pharmacology, Dwain.”

John Regis warned Chambers but he refused to listen.

Chambers met Conte again and told him that he had been clean all his life. Conte’s replied; “They’re cheating you, Dwain … You’re a very talented athlete, but you are not competing on a level playing field, my friend. Most of the top sprinters are on steroids; every time you race them, you are at a disadvantage.”

Chambers recalls: “I was thinking I had been conned and cheated; I felt as if I’d been mugged off since I’d started competing as a junior. At that point in the proceedings I was seething and I was thinking how many medals and how many championships I’d been cheated out of because the men who I was running against had been able to train harder, longer and smarter than me. thanks to the help of THG and other undetectable substances.”

Reading this passage, I believe it is an honest description of the mental state of false victimhood which allows someone to cheat, steal, etc. It’s not an attractive admission – on Chambers’ own account, he did not quiz Conte on what he was saying, but accepted it as truthful (when probably it is not). In all of this, Chamberlain, was very clearly lying to himself. As people do.

Chambers says that in 18 months of drug use he was training harder than he ever had before, but his track best for the 100 metres was reduced by just 0.1 seconds, from 9.97 to 9.87 seconds. This is the sort of improvement that a sprinter might well achieve anyway, by training and competing at the top level for an extra year.

A number of people come out badly from this book. One is Seb Coe, who Chambers describes as having encouraged him privately, before later condemning him publicly, in order to play up to the image the media likes to have of him.

The BOA apparatus also comes over badly. Chambers says that he made considerable efforts to offer his, and Conte’s, services in order to give drugs testers an insight into the techniques used by drugs cheats and to improve enforcement. The BOA took no interest in his offer. It may be that they felt that they already knew all they could need to know about the circumstances of his drugs use. Chambers’ own conclusion is while athletics officials undoubtedly care about their sport looking clean, they do not care in the least about the actuality of drugs use.

I hope, as I’ve written before, that the challenge to the BOA life-time succeeds. I do so because in my professional life I am confronted repeatedly with people who are punished more than once for a wrongdoing which they acknowledge (people who are jailed and lose their house, people who do something stupid and lose access to their child), and I am very strongly of the view that – in general – people should get second chances.

But there’s more to it than that.

Let me end with what may seem like a detour, but isn’t:

In my teens I began to read up on the history of the British left. Imagine my disappointment to discover that the first British Marxist, Henry Myers Hyndman, was a former stockbroker and that Hyndman’s standard device when he spoke to public audiences was to attend dressed in a frock coat and top hat. Hyndman would thank the audience for so generously supporting “my class”, i.e. the boss class. But socialism, if it is to mean anything, should mean the majority of people taking control of their lives. How could they do this, if they had to be led by a boasting toff? Hyndman’s approach struck me as flagrantly wrong.

Somewhere around my mid-thirties, my view of Hyndman changed. I didn’t stop being a socialist; I hadn’t read any more of Hyndman’s work. The penny that dropped was rather this: Hyndman was far from the only middle-class socialist in the 1880s or 1890s (his party the Social Democratic Federation included at various times George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and dozens more of a similar stripe). The style of most left-wing journalists, teachers, etc was – even then – to “prole up”, speaking in regional accents, emphasising their supposed personal poverty (think Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs but 120 years earlier), etc. Hyndman could not by himself solve the problems of poverty and class which really explained why many workers deferred to the middle classes even in the meetings of the socialist groups, which tried to be better and failed.

Simply from the vantage of personal integrity, HM Hyndman’s approach was truer to who he was. And this has increasingly seemed a virtue to me.

Chambers has been brutally honest about his drug use; and it is that honesty which explains why he, unlike other athlets (Christie, Ohuruogu) is still being punished, years after he stopped doing anything wrong.

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2 responses »

    • On 24 Feb 2004 he was banned for two years from competing for UK athletics at all; the ban was backdated to 7 Nov 2003 (Chambers had been suspended from that date). He reamined banned from competing at the Olympics until this year.

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