Dwain Chambers: sport’s last great hope?

Anyone who cares about sport should cheer the British runner’s attempt to beat the moralising bureaucrats and compete at Beijing 2008.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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At 6pm on Saturday, the British athlete Dwain Chambers lay face down on the track at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, England. He had just won the 100 metres sprint at the National Championships in a season’s best time of 10.00 seconds.

For a few seconds, he laid perfectly still. Despite the unremitting focus of the TV cameras, his face was obscured. It was a strange moment; a moment in which months of disciplined, channelled emotion came to a crescendo for Chambers. Lying still also allowed him to piece together his composure before once again opening himself up to an all too critical public gaze.

But unfortunately for Chambers it’s not over yet. He has one more hurdle to clear. Despite winning the National Championships – normally a secure route to Olympics qualification – he is still officially banned from competing in Beijing over an old drugs test. However, that, too, might be overturned in a legal hearing this week.

When in October 2003 Chambers tested positive for the then de rigueur anabolic steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), few could have imagined that its ramifications would still be dominating sporting headlines nearly five years later. Yet despite having served a two-year ban, returning to athletics in 2006, Chambers’ ‘drug cheat’ past remains, for some people, forever present.

Whenever and wherever he competes, you can be sure that his critics – a well-connected mob of the righteous, from officials and ex-athletes to preachy commentators – will be in close attendance, baying ever more vocally for his excommunication from sport. As the ex-British triple jumper, Jonathan Edwards, put it: ‘This is an athlete who is focused on causing damage to himself and the sport, and it is time to walk away.’ (1) Chambers has become a hate figure for the worthies and bureaucrats of British sport.

This year, the official vendetta against Chambers has reached hysterical proportions. In February, UK Athletics (UKA) made an announcement accompanying Chambers’ selection for the Great Britain team at the World Indoor Athletics Championships: ‘The committee was unanimous in its desire not to select Dwain.’ (2) A journalist at The Times (London) echoed their sentiments. Chambers’ selection, he wrote, was a tale neither ‘of redemption’ nor of the ‘sinner repented’; it was simply a victory for a ‘24-carat cheat’ (3).

Chambers, however, has refused to play his part in this sport-as-morality play. He has refrained from firing off public apologies at every opportunity; he has declined from prostrating himself before the powers-that-be; and he has definitely not retired gracefully, or even disgracefully.

Predictably, the pursuit of Chambers has shown little sign of relenting; and this Wednesday at the High Court in London, the sporting equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition will finally confront their man. For although Chambers served his two-year ban according to the terms of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), also accepted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in Britain a positive drug test carries with it the additional punishment of a lifetime ban from the Olympic Games. It is this additional ban, a by-law particular to the British Olympic Association (BOA), that Chambers (and his legal team) will be attempting to overturn at the High Court. Their case is simple: ‘It is an unreasonable restraint of trade in that it goes further than is reasonably necessary for protecting the interests of the BOA and the public.’ (4) The BOA admits it is a restraint of trade, but argues that it is not unreasonable.

When the BOA says that a lifetime ban from Olympic competition is ‘not unreasonable’, presumably it means Chambers should be grateful he is not being condemned to hell and eternal damnation. The debate about Chambers is shot through with creepy religious-style language. Upon hearing that Chambers had met with John Scott, head of anti-doping UK, Lord Sebastian Coe, vice-president of the IAAF, was unimpressed: ‘If you are asking me “does that lead to redemption?” – it may well do, but not in our sport, which has already suffered an horrendous period in the last few years.’ (5)

To his dubious credit, Coe’s recourse to a semi-religious, wholly moralistic lexicon has a history. In the late 1980s the issue of drugs prompted an equally Inquisitional response from Coe. He decreed: ‘We call for the life ban of offending athletes; we call for the life ban of coaches and the so-called doctors who administer this evil.’ (6)

When it comes to drug-use in sport, Coe’s near-biblical nomenclature is no idiosyncrasy; over the past 20 years it has become the lingua franca of the ‘doping’ discussion. Take this comment on the professionalisation of Athletics during the 1980s from the IAAF: ‘Sadly, performance-enhancing drugs became more prominent at this time as well, jeopardising the moral fabric of sport as well as the health and lives of young people.’ [Italics added.] (7) In the eyes of officialdom, it seems, the history of modern sport is synonymous with its Fall.

Indeed, what has been noticeable about the rising tide of hysteria around drug-use in modern sport is the fear that it gravely threatens sport’s putative ‘spirit’, its much-trumpeted ‘ethos’. Or as the UK Sports Council put it in 1998, drug-use is ‘harmful to the image of sport’.

In other words, drug-use threatens not just those involved in sport, but the spectacle, too. It damages how sport appears to the public. What are the components of sport’s ethos, the ‘spirit of Olympism’ as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code puts it? According to a long list produced by the WADA, the components include ‘fun and joy’, ‘teamwork’, ‘respect for self and other participants’, and ‘community and solidarity’ (8). The ‘spirit’ of sport reads like a list of moral platitudes spliced with management consultancy speak. More pointedly, it evokes a counter-cultural reaction to the robust competitive liberalism promoted in sport’s earlier Victorian incarnation.

Indeed, ascribing moral value to sport is nothing new. Since the codification of many games on the playing fields of England’s public schools during the nineteenth century, in which sport was viewed as character-building and health-giving – that is, morally and socially useful – it has increasingly acquired a set of extra-sporting justifications. However, with the gradual assault on the martial machismo of the older, nineteenth-century framework, itself related to the broader disenchantment with classical liberalism, the competitive element has gradually been expunged.

Sport now, especially athletics, justifies itself as an instrument of vague moral instruction, where if it’s not promoting a healthy lifestyle it is embodying a counter-cultural ethos long at odds with the robust bourgeois liberalism with which it was infused during the nineteenth century. And drug-use, perceived as a symptom of the competitiveness unleashed by the professionalisation of sport, is seen as being diametrically opposed to the ‘ethos’ promoted by sport’s ruling bodies today.

For British sports bodies such as the BOA or UKA, anti-doping vigilance now constitutes their raison d’etre. To be ‘clean’, to be purged of corrupting elements, is more important than anything else, even the sport itself, which their vainglorious moralising about drugs has reduced to little more than a necessary evil. For its custodians, sport, in this sense, becomes a moral realm besieged. The barbarians at the gates are cocksure, ultra-competitive professionals prepared to do anything to achieve their goal. In other words they are sports people themselves, people like Dwain Chambers, or Linford Christie (banned for taking drugs in 1999). As Harold Connelly, the 1956 Olympics hammer thrower, declared to the US Senate Committee in 1973: ‘The overwhelming majority of athletes I know would do anything, and take anything, short of killing themselves to improve performance.’ (9) Today’s hysterical, Kafkaesque war against drug use by the bureaucrats and bods of sports officialdom represents the emblematic demonisation of the competitive urge.

Insofar as the spectre of sport’s competitive essence haunts the official image or ‘ethos’ of sport, then the figure of Dwain Chambers symbolises the threat to the sporting body politic. His is the coming ruin, the corruption of the world of sport by competitiveness, in the form of its pejorative synonyms: ego and money. And most damaging of all, as his refusal to accept the excessively punitive nature of the athletics’ establishment’s ban shows, he is unrepentant. He is big, fast, cocky, determined and rebellious: traits that might once have been admired in a sportsman, but which today mean he must be harried and hectored out of the utilitarian world of sport-as-moral-endeavour.

When on Saturday, having seen off all-comers, Chambers hid from the world for those few seconds, it was to absorb a triumph of a deeply personal nature. For in the midst of an all too public vilification, here, at last, was a moment of absolute, unadulterated sporting vindication. For immersed in the alternative reality of the sporting arena, the other stuff ceases to matter. The rules and objectives in this arena are simple: fastest, furthest, highest, longest. And in those moments there is a glimpse of why sport as sport – not as a PR tool for certain social values, but as a reality unto itself – can be so glorious.

Anyone who values sport should cheer Chambers in his court case this week. There’s more at stake than his appearance at Beijing; without knowing it, Chambers is taking a stand for sport itself, for sport for its own sake, against the cynical denigration of sport by officials who prefer to see it as a mechanism for social engineering rather than as an Olympian clash between competitive greats.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black thought Dwain Chambers was guilty of nothing more than being cocky. Sean Collins described how baseball’s drug witch-hunts undermined the game. Dan Travis wondered who’s afraid of drugs in sport? Elsewhere, he lamented the collapse of school sport into mere activity and Matthias Heitmann argued that Tour de France competitors should be allowed to take drugs. Or read more at spiked issue: Sport.

(1) Edwards wants Chambers out, Setanta Sports News, 13 June

(2) Cheating ourselves by cheering man who swindled us all, The Times (London), 12 February 2008

(3) GB name Chambers in Worlds squad, BBC Sport, 12 February 2008

(4) Chambers to learn fate next week, BBC news, 9 July 2008

(5) Chambers will cause more damage, BBC news, 18 May 2008

(6) Drugs and Doping in Sport: Socio-legal Perspectives, John O’Leary, Routledge, 2001, p.101

(7) See the IAAF website here.

(8) See the WADA code here.

(9) Feeling Good and Doing Better: Ethics and Nontherapeutic Drug, Thomas Murray, Willard Gaylin, Ruth Macklin, Humana Press, 1984 p.115

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Topics Politics


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