Darren Campbell admits, with a chuckle, that comments he recently made on a British radio show have landed him in a little hot water.
Speaking as part of a BBC discussion on whether athletics is clean, the Olympic gold medallist turned pundit stated that he would not encourage any of his three children to take up the sport as a career.
Coming from such a respected athlete – one who has made his anti-drugs stance clear – this assertion was taken as a tacit admission that the IAAF is losing its battle with doping. “I guess in a way I didn’t get the chance to fully explain,” Campbell says. “I mean as a career.
There’s nothing with kids’ athletics, there’s nothing wrong with anything like that, but once you decide to take it up as a career then what are you actually letting yourself in for? That’s the scary thing.”
The programme was aired in the wake of a German television documentary that claimed the IAAF had failed to investigate 150 suspicious blood samples. It was the latest in a long line of scandals to hit a sport that has fought a very long and public battle with synthetic drugs, that has involved some of its biggest names.
“With the revelations that have come out over the last couple of months,” Campbell – part of Britain’s gold-medal winning 4x100m team at the 2004 Olympics – continues.
“It just raises suspicion for one, but then when you’ve been an athlete yourself and you’ve heard rumours when you were involved in the sport that certain people get protected, it just makes you feel like maybe they do. Because things like this that come back from the past damage the sport, and people are already sceptical.”
He adds: “The bottom line is the sport has been damaged. There has to come a point when the sport needs to decide to, I guess, protect and rebuild its reputation.
“You can’t have hundreds of tests come out from the past saying this has happened, and this has happened – it’s just not right.”
Doping has haunted athletics for longer than many would care to admit, while the lure of gaining an artificial edge is as old as competitive sport itself.
Six of the 10 fastest men in history have failed doping tests, a stat that has sullied the reputation of sprinting.
Campbell says the perception of athletics needs to be rebuilt, noting with resignation that a recent article he read on British success provoked four comments, two of which questioned the validity of the athletes.
The influence of the Mancunian’s mother ensured he spurned the offer of drugs as a young athlete, and while he ultimately missed out on individual Olympic sprint gold to athletes that have since been embroiled in doping scandals, he does not hold a grudge.
“I am somebody who has been cheated out of medals because of it, but I think if I walked around bitter then, I couldn’t work on radio,” the 41-year-old says laughing.
“Because the bitter tone would come across, and that’s why I made such a statement that I wouldn’t encourage my own children to do the sport.
“When I was a child at the age of 12 and I watched Carl Lewis win four Olympic gold medals, for me it was all about standing on that podium. Obviously I didn’t know anything about drugs and it was about being the best that I could be and dreaming, I guess, above my station.
“And I think these things are so pure, and so innocent, that actually when you decide to take up the sport as a career and you find out that people are cheating, it makes a mockery of it all.” So, does he believe that young athletes are faced with a straight choice between being successful and staying clean?
“I don’t think it’s got to that stage and I think that things like the blood passports make it a lot more difficult for people to cheat,” Campbell says.
“When I was first approached, I think it was because I was from a council estate, because I was a rough kid and maybe I seemed the type that would go down that path. But I was very fortunate in that it was never a decision that I had to make because my mum had already warned me that the day that I felt that I needed to take drugs, stop. It’s not that important.
“And that’s the thing, why is it that important that you have to take drugs? “I don’t understand it – because if it’s solely about money there are other ways away from sport that you can earn money illegally if that’s what you want to do.
“Because that is really what we’re talking about, although it’s not a criminal offence, it’s immoral. It might as well be illegal, you’re robbing people.” Perhaps the biggest heist is yet to come. One man has run faster than the six who were caught doping, and while there is no suggestion that Usain Bolt has used drugs, athletics would find it tough to recover from their own ‘Lance Armstrong’ moment. “I said on the show, if Usain Bolt tests positive I’m done,” Campbell adds.
“How can I talk about something that I don’t believe? That would make me a hypocrite. “And while I’ve still got the belief that people are going out there, and it’s just the minority that are deciding to take the wrong path, then I continue to fight for what’s right and fight for the rights of those athletes that are trying to do it the right way.”
Campbell now aims to ensure athletes put the right things in their bodies, through his nutrition company Pro Athlete Supplementation (PAS). All of the ingredients that PAS use are rigorously tested for cross-contamination in order to create a “safe-haven for sports people”.
The Commonwealth Games and European Championships 100m winner – when not working as a sprint coach with football clubs including Chelsea and Cardiff City – is also heavily involved in getting youngsters active thanks to his involvement with Sky Sports and the Youth Sport Trust.
Campbell ultimately believes athletics in its purest form is a force for good, and his passion for it remains undimmed. “It is the sport that you learn first when you’re in infant school, when you’re five or six at sports day,” he adds.
“So, athletics has a massive part to play in lots of different sports – and that’s why it is important that the integrity of the sport is upheld, because without integrity you haven’t got anything.”
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