Sunday, June 28, 2009

Race Against Me: My Story by Dwain Chambers

A review by Mimitig

Over the years of this blogspace’s existence, there has been coverage of football (lots), cricket, motorsport and cycling (quite a lot), rowing (a little bit), very strange sports and occasionally other things.

Book reviews are not our forte.

However, I think there is a reason to focus our attention on a book about a sport we don’t usually cover.

The book is Dwain Chambers’s autobiography, the sport is track athletics and the reason is drugs.

I am not a great fan of athletics – the only time I get enthused is during the Olympics but only someone who throws away the front pages of the newspapers and never listens to news could have avoided hearing about the furore that surrounded Dwain Chambers’s positive drug test and the subsequent battles he has fought to be allowed to compete again.

One of my favourite sports (track cycling) is horribly blighted by drug-cheats and when I heard that Dwain Chambers was going to spill all the beans in his book, I just had to read it.

Everyone has known, since the days of the East Germans, that doping was part of athletics, but until Dwain got caught, cycling has copped all the shit. This, I thought, was a chance to get some inside info into the dirty doings in another sport.

Now, I heard many interviews with Chambers after the publication of this book and he came across as a very arrogant, unpleasant and self-serving person. I didn’t like him at all. Yeah, I thought, you did the drugs, got caught and now trying to justify it.

The first pages of the book did little to change my view. One of his ghost-writers is a chap called Ken Scott. If I’d Googled Scott before I read his preface, I might have been more forgiving of the fact he (while trying to describe the art of sledging) spelled Glenn McGrath’s name wrong. Four times. A Newcastle fan – need I say more?

Anyway, I plunged into the body of the text, trying to rid myself of the ghostwriter who couldn’t be bothered to get a world famous name right and the editor, copy editor and proof reader (forget checking a name but who ever heard of a drug called “heroine”?) who compounded that error, and to my surprise I found myself gripped.

There is no doubt this is a badly-written and horrendously-produced book and - at £18.99 for the hardback - is something any publisher should be ashamed of, but the information inside is both fascinating and incendiary.

Chambers does not write well, and his ghostwriters did nothing for his prose, but he has opened what should be a very large can of worms.

He lays out, in painful, very painful, detail his drugging diaries and how his body reacted. He also makes it clear that he was only one of many. Notes give details of other athletes involved with BALCO including US medal winners Kelli White and Chryste Gaines.

It is not hard to understand how Chambers felt the only way to compete on equal terms was to join Victor Contes’s crew.

While all this is sort of in the public domain, what is most interesting about this book is the way the British Sporting Establishment has reacted to Dwain Chambers, his book and his personal statements to some of the hi-di-his such as Colin Moynihan.

The Establishment has been prepared to accept other “Drug Cheats” back into the fold. Carl Myerscough is a prime example, but they have treated Dwain Chambers with a disdain and unfairness that is out of all previous behaviour. He got caught, he served his ban, but is still, and has been for four years after, been treated as an evil pariah.

This is despite Chambers fully cooperating with investigations, passed on to WADA and UK Athletics and the Olympic authorities, all the information he had about drug-taking in athletics.

The treatment Chambers received, not just from his own sport but also the public and the press, is at odds with the way a certain David Millar was treated makes me wonder whether Chambers is right when he writes:

“It is clear as bottled water that something or someone higher up the chain is out to stop me. They are trying to stop me competing, stop me earning a living and of course trying to prevent me from attending the Olympics in 2012.”

This book, in conclusion, is a must read. It’s badly written, professionally everything about it is horrid – don’t get me started on the spacing and punctuation errors – but the content is worth the crap.

And one of the amazing things about it, is that you know, as you read, that Chambers could crap so heavily on so many other people, but he doesn’t. My opinion of the man changed.

In Praise of Ivan Lendl - Mac Millings

Some people just get no respect. There’s always someone better looking, cleverer, a brighter natural spark and no matter how much harder than them you work, or how much better a career you have, when it comes time to reminisce, the beautiful will always inspire the fondest memories, the functional ending up an afterthought. Geography and history conspired to make Ivan Lendl the plain, industrious afterthought of 80s tennis.

Had Mr Gorbachev torn down that wall 10 years earlier, Lendl might have been an exotic European, with a name – one part Slavic, one part Germanic – entirely appropriate for a man born in what is now the Czech Republic, where Eastern Europe meets the West. Instead, as the Cold War raged, he was considered dour, dull and unemotional and was treated by the Wimbledon crowd (among others) with indifference, if not with the kind of disdain that, until the latter part of her career, greeted his compatriot, Martina Navratilova.

In an era when ‘characters’ - which, in the 80s, consisted of: a) players who ranted at the umpire and b) those who, after losing a point, handed their racquet to a ball boy - ruled at the All England Club, the likes of Connors, McEnroe and Becker reigned supreme. (British players, of course, were, and are, an exception – all that’s required of them is to have neat hair and an unthreatening accent, be undemonstrative and, preferably, English. Considered a bonus is the ability to raise hopes of bringing home that elusive Championship, only to pull out, limp, just at the moment of National Orgasm).

Of course, had the 1985 Wimbledon Champion, the 17-year-old Boris Becker, been born in East Germany rather than West, he would not have been considered a glamourous, exciting, Teuton-handsome freak of nature, but instead, a State-sponsored tennis machine, fuelled by repetitive drills and performance-enhancing drugs (although if he had been East German, they’d probably have pumped him full of oestrogen and entered him into the Ladies’ Singles).

At Wimbledon, titles can excuse a lack of personality – hence Bjorn Borg’s popularity – but Lendl never secured the former and was widely perceived to be missing the latter, too. He was the kind of player of whom commentators would repeatedly say: “He’s a funny guy if you get to know him.” On court, however, he was metronomic, mechanical, unloveable – and, crucially, a loser. Seven SW19 semifinals translated to two finals and no tournament victories.

Yet the truth is, Lendl was a pioneer. Considered by most at the time to be among the strongest players in the game, he was perhaps the first to make a rigorous fitness and nutritional regime an integral part of his preparation – something which is taken for granted now, with Rafael Nadal the poster boy for strength and endurance.

On the court, Dan Maskell used to say of Lendl: “He just plants his big feet and whacks it.” Rather than surmising what the Czech was doing while watching the pay-per-view bongo channel in the privacy of his hotel room, Maskell was trying to tell us why Lendl hadn’t (and would never) win Wimbledon. Of course, the comment both overlooked the fact that Lendl was using his devastating inside-out forehand to an unprecedented extent and effect and also failed to foresee that his then-unique modus operandi would go on to become the norm. These days, that forehand is a standard weapon in any good player’s armoury – most notably, that of a certain Swiss.

Perhaps some might blame Lendl for the subsequent paucity of characters in the men’s game and the rise of the machines. But that would be like blaming Hendrix for Hair Metal, or Jack Walker for Roman Abramovich. Besides, why not emulate him? He was, without question, the leading player of his day. His total of eight Grand Slam wins matches Connors’s tally and eclipses that of McEnroe and all his other contemporaries.

On these shores, Lendl’s failure to win Wimbledon counts heavily against him. However Connors, significantly, never won the French (or even reached the final there – and while he did win the US Open when it was a clay court tournament, it was the harder, faster green clay, which bears little relation, as a playing surface, to the European red). McEnroe came up short not only at Roland Garros (where he managed just one final), but also at the Australian, where he only progressed as far as the semis on one occasion, even though it was held on grass until 1987.

Of the other 80s greats, Becker (no French Open title) and Edberg (one final in Paris) won 6 Slams each. Since the early 60s, in men’s tennis only Agassi and Federer have achieved the career Grand Slam. Of his contemporaries, no one got closer to it than Ivan Lendl.

Not only was his Grand Slam record impressive, but his career winning percentage in singles (82%), is the highest in history among those who have played over 1,000 matches and, head-to-head, he boasts a winning record over every significant player of his era, other than Borg (whom he played at the beginning of his own career and at the peak of the Swede’s), Sampras (whom he mostly played well after his peak) and Edberg (for which there is no excuse).

Back in the 80s, Maskell was proven correct. Lendl didn’t have enough at the net to win Wimbledon. But as long ago as 1992 Andre Agassi, a baseliner (albeit a quicker one and a better service returner), won it and within a few short years, as the surface became slower and truer, the hallowed lawns had changed from a beast unlike anything else on the circuit, to the place where hard court and clay court meet – quick enough for Federer, slow enough for Nadal. And perfect for Lendl – it’s just a shame he was a little too far ahead of his time.

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