‘At last, I got just a little light’

Published : Jan 31, 2009 00:00 IST

As always with this infamous sprinter, who combines a smiley charm with his bruised fatalism, Dwain Chambers seems unsure whether he should laugh or cry at the state of his troubled life. He tells Donald McRae of how he is capable of beating UsainBolt and his mountain of debts.

Dwain Chambers looks at the tattoos covering his body as if the blue patterns inked into his skin might help tell the story of his terrible fall. His bright yellow shirt has been flung to the ground with the same revealing intimacy with which he has talked for over an hour about his devastating mistakes and justified punishment since being exposed as a drug cheat in 2003. As always with this infamous sprinter, who combines a smiley charm with his bruised fatalism, Chambers seems unsure whether he should laugh or cry at the state of his troubled life.

“You can see the mess my head was in a few years ago by looking at these,” Chambers murmurs as his fingers trace the tangled tattoos on his arms. “I got banned and, with no education and no work, it felt like I had nothing left. So I’d go get another one of these…”

Chambers nods wryly at his tattoos, the most eye-catching of which is spread across his upper back in a curved line of ornate lettering whose blunt message — “Deal Wid Da Matta” — echoes the black patter of the north London streets where he grew up. Some very different words — “Jesus Loves Me” — make a cross in the middle of his back. But now, with time running out for Chambers — he insists he has just over 11 months left to save himself on the track — the 30-year-old is intent on dealing with matters of his enduring guilt and elusive redemption.

He has just finished writing his still unseen autobiography, which should be a riveting read, and that introspective process has clearly left its mark on Chambers. “We all face crossroads in life,” he suggests, “and if you take the wrong path it can cause big problems. But, usually, you find your way back. With me it’s different. The wrong turning I took left me paralysed. It feels like I’ve been trying to dig myself out of a grave the last six years.”

Chambers admits that, at his lowest, he briefly considered suicide. “I think everyone contemplates it at some point in their life. Believe me, I contemplated it myself. It was in there, in my head, but just as quick I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’ It was early on during my ban and I thought ‘what am I going to do?’ I had no routine left in my life, no goals, no nothing. But I’ve since tried to put my life back together after the big mess I made.”

He has served his two-year ban and is permitted to run competitively again by the International Association of Athletics Federations, but Chambers is still ostracised and subject to a life-long exclusion from the British Olympic team. He is not only broke but buried under mountainous debt, resulting from a stipulation that he repay the prize money he won while using performance-enhancing drugs. “It’s tough but at least I can now look you in the eye. If I hadn’t been honest about how far back I went with it I wouldn’t have suffered so much money-wise but I feel stronger now it’s out in the open.”

It has been suggested that Chambers still owes the IAAF a six-figure sum. He emits a forlorn laugh. “Yeah, it’s in that region. And once I’ve squashed that debt I have to pay back UK Athletics. It’s not such a big amount but it ain’t peanuts. And on top of that the tax man takes his share. So even when I do start earning I’m going to be bringing home crumbs.”

Chambers and his long-suffering partner, Leonie Daley, a civil servant on maternity leave after giving birth recently to their second son, Rocco, have been in financial crisis for most of their four years together. “I’ve obviously been off the lottery funding and I’ve got no contracts so I’m lucky Leonie works. But you don’t earn a lot as a civil servant and we’ve also got (their three-year old son) Skye and Leonie’s first (teenage) boy.

“I had to re-mortgage my house twice and even that was not enough. I had to swallow my pride and move to a much smaller house in Enfield. But if it hadn’t been for Leonie I would have gone off the rails. She’s managed to keep us afloat while putting up with crazy old me. I always apologise to her because I can’t let my frustrations show in public. But I get home and end up shouting at her. It ain’t fair but she’s been very understanding.”

Chambers suggests that not even Leonie could help him last summer after he lost his court case to overturn the BOA’s Olympic ban. “It took me three months to get over it. I didn’t leave the house, I just sat there, mute. Leonie couldn’t say nothing. I was devastated.”

The sprinter’s dejection is fuelled by his belief that he would have won a medal in Beijing. “I know I would have gone there and done it. Silver or bronze was well within my grasp. I ran 6.54 (over 60m) indoors last year and that equates to 9.80 outdoors. Silver in the 100m final in Beijing was won in 9.89. So that tells me I could’ve run second behind (Usain) Bolt. Other (British) runners went in my place and they really didn’t do well. That made me realise again how much I’d lost.”

He smiles ruefully when asked if he actually watched Bolt’s extraordinary demolition of the world 100 metres record. “Yeah, I faced my demons, and I’m glad I did. I knew Bolt was capable of running fast but I was surprised by how quick he went.”

Chambers trained alongside the young Jamaican for six months in 2006 and claims that he is “probably the only person who can say he has consistently beaten Usain Bolt. He beat me just as often, don’t get me wrong, and if it was over 150m then forget it. But between 80 and 100m I’d win one and he’d win one. He knew I was more than capable of beating him because I did it so often. Bolt was amazing in Beijing but I was the one guy who might have got into his head. We all have doubts and, on the starting line, every sprinter is crapping himself.”

Despite his continuing problems Chambers is convinced that, given a chance to return to full-time international competition, he could join Bolt and Asafa Powell as one of the top three sprinters in the world. It is an argument that will need to be proved in the full heat of battle and Chambers must win the European Indoor Championships in Turin in March to underline the seriousness of his credentials. He is bolstered by the fact that, last year, he showed real resolve when winning silver at the world indoors. “Last year I was number one in Europe over both 60m and 100m so I really should win in Turin. As European champion I’ll then have a much better chance of getting some invites to big Grand Prix meetings. But unless I start earning money by the end of 2009 I’ll have to give up. There’s no two ways about it — this year is my very last chance. But as long as I’m supreme in Europe maybe I can turn things around.”

Charles van Commenee, the new performance director of UK Athletics, has implied that Chambers has been punished enough. “That’s encouraged me,” Chambers says. “We should have done better in Beijing and Charles realises that. Maybe he can convince the rest of UK Athletics that I can help us win some medals. Since I’ve come back I’ve posted far better times than all the other British sprinters who are getting loads of financial support. So what’s going on? Sometimes it pisses me off and you wonder if some of these young sprinters have got my hunger.”

As if fearing that he might have gone too far in questioning the appetite of his younger rivals, Chambers looks suddenly contrite. “But I should apologise for the pain and distress I’ve caused the sport. That’s important — just as it was important for me to realise I’ve only got myself to blame.”

Chambers looks pensive when asked how other British athletes might react to his possible return to the national team — even if he accepts that he will still be banned from the 2012 Olympics. “There’s an international meeting in Glasgow on January 31 but I’m not holding my breath. I’ll run in Birmingham that day if they don’t want me. You saw for yourself that reaction to me among British athletes last year was mixed. People are nice to my face but then they say something different in the paper or on TV. But I understand the reasons and the public have been good to me. The only ones that shout are the drunkards. The down-and-outs give me a real hard time.”

He laughs, knowing that he too has been down and almost out, and it again seems a tragic waste that Chambers allowed himself to be led down the doping path. “I was just afraid and didn’t want to be left behind. I was in the top five in the world but I looked at (the disgraced former 100m world record holder) Tim Montgomery and thought, ‘if he’s doing (drugs) I’d better be doing it.’ I was too ignorant and weak to know better. Montgomery got his world record in a race against me and we were both on the same doping programme. He knew that I knew, but we never spoke about it. The weird thing is that I never ran my best when I was taking that stuff. I was stronger and bigger but I was too worried about being caught to perform as I should have done.

“But maybe I needed to fall this far and this hard to finally grow up. I’ve kept every single one of my press cuttings, and most of them are bad, because one day I’m going to show Skye, my oldest son, the pitfalls he’ll need to avoid. He can make sure he doesn’t make the same mistakes.”

The sprinter’s eyes are glistening now, more with pride than anguish, as he leans forward. “He’s only three, my boy, but he’s got his father’s genes. I’ve started training him already because he just loves to run. He says he’s going to be a runner just like me. But I want there to be a big difference between me and him. I want him to do it the right way.”

Chambers spreads his arms wide, emulating the cross on his back, and smiles. “If that don’t give you a reason to hope what else could? Today is a new day. It’s the middle of winter outside but did you see that trace of sunshine when we walked in here? That’s my life right now. It’s still cold and hard but, at last, I got just a little light.”

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