Ten years ago a young British sprinter was on his way to being named European Athlete of the Year for 2002. The most exciting speed merchant this side of the Atlantic since the heyday of Linford Christie, he ran 9.87 seconds for the 100 metres at the IAAF Grand Prix final in Paris, equalling Christie’s British and European record.
The following year that achievement was scrubbed from the official records. Dwain Chambers, the leading British athlete of his generation, had become one of several top sporting stars embroiled in what became known as the Balco scandal.
Balco – the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative– was a small business in San Francisco that was found to have supplied performance-enhancing drugs, mostly to baseball players. Supposedly monitoring “mineral deficiencies” in its clients, Balco administered a range of products developed by its brilliant chemist, Patrick Arnold.
Chambers, the superstar American athlete Marion Jones and her partner, the then world 100m record-holder Tim Montgomery, were all found to have used THG, or The Clear, a body-building steroid developed by Arnold. They were stripped of their medals, their records and their winnings, banned from athletics for two years, and from the Olympics for life.
Since his return to competition in 2005, Chambers has admitted to having used half a dozen other banned substances between mid-2002 and his failed test in August 2003. He has become a powerful advocate of drug-freesport – indeed, of drug-free life.
His advocacy is arguably all the more powerful because no one can say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
One of the sad ironies of his downfall is that, aside from that historic run in Paris, he was quicker before moving to San Francisco and getting tangled in the Balco net.
He has broken the 10-second barrier for the 100m four times as a “clean” athlete; his best British contemporaries, Mark Lewis-Francis and Jason Gardener, have achieved the feat just once each.
THG was not actually on the banned list when Chambers, Jones and Montgomery started taking it. It was too new.
You could argue that the athletes must have known they were at least evading the rules if not actually breaking them. Arnold and the Balco founder Victor Conte surely did: they served jail sentences of three and four months for their roles in the affair.
The athletes lost a lot more. Indeed, Chambers is still barred – by the British Olympic Association, not the International Olympic Association – from competing at this summer’s London Games.
Like many other interested parties, he will be agog to hear the outcome of last week’s hearing by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on whether that ban is legal.
That decision may not be announced for a month, during which we are sure to hear plenty of impassioned argument on both sides of the question. It may not be an easy question for the CAS to determine.
One can understand the feelings of those potential Olympians who will miss out if what could be their place in the team is handed to Chambers, or cyclist David Millar.
And one can sympathise with those many athletes, such as swimmer Rebecca Adlington, hepathlete Kelly Sotherton and cyclist Alex Dowsett, who continue to insist that drug cheats should never be allowed to compete in the Olympics.
It is questionable, though, whether we should really go on describing Chambers as “drug cheat”.
Had he committed an actual crime – taken some other kind of drug, say, or been found guilty of a minor burglary or assault– as long ago as 2003, we wouldn’t be allowed to mention it now.
Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, an offence punished by a prison sentence of up to six months is “spent” – wiped off the record – after seven years. If no custodial sentence is handed down – and Chambers was never imprisoned, or found guilty in law of any offence – that limit is five years.
Perhaps it would be fairer to call him “former drug cheat”.
And there is another view, espoused recently by Britain’s current favourite athlete Jessica Ennis, that it is unfair for Britain to retain a rule that has been scrapped by the rest of the athletics world.
Marathon queen Paula Radcliffe put it well. “I actually supported the rule that if you had a drugs ban you shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the Olympics, that it should be a life ban,” she said. “But at the moment it’s unfair because Dwain is the only one who is really being penalised for it.
“He is one of the few who stuck his hands up and said, ‘I did cheat and I’m sorry.’
“I would rather see every country take the BOA’s rule on board but if not I think you have to have some sympathy for Dwain and the situation he is in.”
Sympathy, certainly. But even if the ban is ruled unlawful, should Chambers actually be picked to run for Britain in the Games?
His performance 10 days ago in Istanbul, where he took bronze in the world indoor 60m, would say ‘yes’. He is still, for now, our best sprinter.
With his 34th birthday approaching quicker than the Games, he cannot be considered a serious contender for an Olympic medal.
Neither, realistically, can any other British sprinter – this time – unless James Dasaolu or former world junior champion Harry Aikines-Aryeetey can contrive a big improvement in the next five months. For them, the true target is probably Rio 2016.
The men whose London 2012 hopes are really threatened by the possibility of Chambers being reinstated are two other thirtysomethings, Marlon Devonish and Christian Malcolm. For them, too, one can have sympathy as they too await the ruling on Chambers.
In the meantime this remains a story with more questions than answers.