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Monday, February 25, 2008

Dwain Chambers is back

Hopefully, you've noticed the newly added Tabs at the top of the page - we've added this to make it a little easier to navigate your way around our archives and to find articles. Thanks to Vanilla from Half-fast for steering me in the right direction to figure out how to add the tabs. While we're in the process of fixing them up and adding and rearranging our content, our email subscribers might get the occasional arbitrary email post which is actually just a page we're inserting to make use of the tabs, so please bear with us! We hope the tabs work well and they make the site a little easier to get around!

But for today, we thought we'd look at a story that has been around in the news for a while now, but one that we missed while I was in the USA - the story of Dwain Chambers.

Dwain Chambers: A headache for sports authorities, but a case control study on the state of doping

Dwain Chambers of Britain was one of the world's most promising sprinters - in 1999, at the age of 21, he claimed bronze at the World Athletics Championships in Spain.

He went on to win the European Championships in 2002, but never really made the big breakthrough, living in the shadow of the dominant sprinter of the early 2000's, Maurice Greene.

Then, in 2003, the wheels came off for Chambers, when his performances were poor, and he failed a drugs test in August. It was subsequently revealed that he had tested positive for THG, the designer steroid made famous by the BALCO scandal. It was Chamber's use of THG that landed him with a 2-year ban from the sport. He later admitted to having used THG since 2002, which would cost him (and team-mates) medals from the 2002 European Championships.

During his ban, Chambers dabbled in American Football, including a failed tryout with the San Francisco 49ers. He eventually returned to competitive athletics in 2006, and even won a medal as part of the British relay team at the 2006 European Championships. It was after this race that one of his team-mates from the 2002 European Championships, Darren Campbell, refused to join the team on the victory lap, in protest against Chamber's drug past. Campbell, along with 2 other team-mates, had been stripped of their own gold medals in 2002 thanks to Chambers' confessed use of THG.

The headache grows - Chambers finds form indoors

But the looming problem for the British Athletic authorities was only going to get bigger. Chambers has returned to form in 2008, and won the British Indoor Championships, having expressed his intention of qualifying for the World Indoor Championships.

The problem for the authorities is that Chambers had effectively retired from athletics in 2006, after the European Champs, when he had again attempted to start a career in American Football with the NFL Europa league. This was mixed in with a stint on a reality TV show, but the net result was that British authorities took Chambers off their list of athletes who would be tested out of competition.

However, on his return, Chambers did everything required of an athlete to qualify for the British team, even winning the indoor 60m title which SHOULD have guaranteed him his place.

But the situation is not so simple - understandably, the British athletics authorities do not want Chambers in their team. In their words:

"The committee was unanimous in its desire not to select Dwain".
And this was AFTER he'd been selected for the team, amid threats of lawsuits and counter-threats should he be omitted.

However, the fact was that there was no law in place to exclude Chambers and so the only basis for leaving him out would be an "exceptional circumstances" clause. This "exceptional circumstance" might have been that Chambers CANNOT run in the Beijing Olympics, thanks to a British Olympic law that gives a life-time ban to any athlete failing a dope test.

They chose not to make use of that law, possibly fearing reprisal from Chambers' lawyers, and so now we will see Chambers competing in a British vest come the World Indoor Championships in March.

But there's more to Chambers than this

So having said just this, Chambers' story is not exceptional. But then you begin to consider some of the things he has said since he was caught and banned. For example, in an interview with Matthew Pinsent in mid-2007, Chambers had the following to say about doping in sport:

"It's simple, science always moves faster than the testers. Some people take chances, some don't, and I was willing to take that chance. I was under the assumption that I wouldn't get caught."

In one sense, one has to applaud Chambers' honesty, as it makes a change from the usual conspiracy theories and denial that characterizes most positive tests these days - the usual tactic is to attack the testers, cry smear campaign, and deny every accusation. Chambers chose instead to speak his mind, revealing what most athletes probably think before they too use drugs.

But then later on, Chambers was asked whether a clean athlete could possibly beat a doped ru
nner, his reply was:
"It's possible, but the person that's taken drugs has to be having a real bad day. That's what I believe."
This was seen to be a 'confession' that most of the top, successful athletes were using drugs and that success was not possible without the use of drugs. This common interpretation of Chambers' comments is probably taken a little out of context, but it earned Chambers almost universal condemnation from former and present British athletes. Now that Chambers is part of the British athletics scene once again, the viewpoints have been expressed from all corners.

For example, in response to Chambers' selection for the World Indoor team for 2008, Dame Kelly Holmes, double Olympic Champion from Athens, was quoted as saying that:
"This was an athlete who went to America, knowingly took a drug that was undetectable at the time, got caught, admitted he'd taken drugs, then went on to say that you can't win anything without taking drugs. It doesn't put us in a good light allowing a cheat, who has admitted he's a cheat, to represent us."
Harsh words, which encapsulate just how strongly some feel about Chambers' inclusion and the possibility that he will be fighting for an Olympic berth later this year. For more quotes and reaction to the story, check out this article.

The interesting possibility of a case control comparison of past vs. present

But apart from all the ethical and legal arguments that this issue has raised, there is also an interesting possible "case-control" study that may arise as a result. I for one, will be very interested to see just how Chambers fares this season.

Because what we have here is an athlete who admitted to using a steroid over a very clearly defined time-period, who is now competing, supposedly drug free.

So lets' say that Chambers comes back and runs the same times as he did during his drug-use days. If this happens, it invites three interesting possible conclusions, the first two of which are:
    • Either he is still using drugs, and they are providing the same effect as before
    • The drugs he used did not work to begin with
The second option seems unlikely, so it will be very interesting to see how the athletics world responds to Chambers should he be successful in 2008. He is already viewed with suspicion and that will only grow if he is successful this year. Perhaps the only way he will be able to avoid all suspicion and fulfill the role of "anti-doping ambassador" (a role he himself has spoken of) is if he is unsuccessful on the track!

That's a tricky situation to be in -
success means suspicion, while avoiding suspicion requires mediocre performances! Of course, there is the third possibility which is that he is now drug-free and still performs at the same levels thanks to his training and dedication, but then being the cynics we are, that's a far less likely scenario!

So it will be very interesting to see how Chambers fares in the coming months. The possible legal wranglings on the horizon will also make for interesting discussion, should Chambers go after the Olympic Games as he's threatened to do. But for now, we'll keep an eye on his performances and see just how he performs!



bryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

First off, I'm no fan of Dwain Chambers and I'm not a fan of second chances for drug cheats. But I don't think we can easily discount the possibility that an individual who stops using drugs, but continues training for a substantial number of years, could reach the same levels.

There are three basic components to improvement: quantity, quality, and time. You can do more, you can do what you do more effectively/efficiently, or you can do something longer. Most athletes aim to improve all three over the course of their careers.

THG/Steroids offer a short-term fix by allowing you to increase your quantity/quality faster than is naturally possible. If he stopped doing the drugs, but continued to work hard throughout the years, it's possible--though admittedly unlikely--that he could reach the same levels.

I will also be interested in seeing how this unfolds. Thanks for posting on it. Here's a related but different question that I've been thinking about recently:

What should track and field do about the numerous world records--particularly women's--set in the 1980s before drug testing was mandatory, especially given the suspicion (Flo-Jo) and in some cases substantiation (Marita Koch) that these people were using performance enhancing drugs?

DVSkike said...

Third possibility.
He took the drugs, they did work, he is still benefiting in some way however small from the effects of increased musculature, increased muscle cell density, golgi tendon dis-inhibition....

Steroids are not pixie dust that blows away when you're done taking them.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Bryan

Thanks for the comments!

Certainly, it is possible that he could run the same times - in my defence, I did acknowledge this third possibility in the post, a couple lines after the first two!

But yes, in theory, with the right training and application, he'd overcome whatever benefits are lost through no longer using steroids.

It didn't happen that way for Marion Jones though - if you analyse her performances after she returned to athletics once the THG affair had broken (this was before her admission of guilt), she was substantially slower than pre-THG testing days. Same for Tim Montgomery, who never got back to the same level.

Perhaps Chambers will be different - point is, he's doomed to speculation should he run the same times, particularly given his now infamous comment that the guy running clean can only beat the doped athlete on a bad day for the doper! If he now wins, people will be wondering to themselves!

As for those women's records, good point. The problem is suspicion - the Flo-Jo records are so obviously tainted, but I have visions of lawsuits if the IAAF tried to scratch them. Even denoting with an asterisk that they are "suspect" would cause an outcry - "She's just that naturally talented" is what the supporters will say. And you can't disprove that, though it's a joke when you look at the gap between today's times and those of the 1980's!

And the even bigger joke is that you realise that most, if not all, the top 100m women of the 1990's and the 2000's have themselves used drugs! So marion Jones came close, but was still way off Flo-Jo, and that was with the aid of steroids!

But what to do with them? There are very few that probably don't escape suspicion. Add in the field events like discus and shotput, and then also the Chinese women's records are very dodgy. But again, can't be proven, so we just have to accept that today's women athletes are competing without the added pressure of world record bonuses!

But if we have any knowledgeable lawyers reading this, and you know of a way that one can legally show that the records are drug-assisted without actually having a positive test or confession, let us know!


Anonymous said...

Whilst i am no lover of anyone who cheats to attain his target, this man has been given a sentence and served it, wether someo fo us agree with the lenght or not. - If we feel his sentence is not long enough, we should target our disaproval toward the person passing sentence , not to the person recieving - who, as dwain (sp?) has done, carried out in full. I offer my full support to anyone who tries to reverse and improve upon any misdemeanour or wrong turn he or she has committed, and i feel that the press is currently still portraying him as a drug cheat. This is given, but the guy is trying to move on, we as public should allow this, if a criminal wanted to change and we kept branding him as such , he would give up , and continue to be as such - who is the bad person then ?
Let this guy undo , something he freely admitted to being - he wants to change , if we fail to let him. then we are ultimately responsible.



Anonymous said...

a world class sprinter off the drugs will never - could never - beat a world class sprinter on the drugs. in chambers' case, at his age - or really any sprinter in their 30s - isn't going to beat a sprinter in their 20s unless they are on drugs.
if you look at the history of the 100-meter dash, in the era before drugs took hold, young men held the record. older guys remained successful in the era of steroids, hgh, EPO, etc.
just look at chambers' time off the sauce - i don't think he ever ran a sub 10 second 100-meter, and you'll what a world-class sprinter can run without drugs.