It was one of the most bitter and brilliant rivalries in the annals of Irish athletics, and 10 years on from its apex, the feelings still linger for David Campbell and Thomas Chamney. From selection scandals to doping dilemmas, dream races to nightmare injuries, they now open up to Cathal Dennehy about what brought their careers together — and ultimately drove them apart.
Ever wonder how it fades? The bad blood and bitterness spilled in the sporting arena — the dislike and disdain between two rivals who would, if the opportunity arose, happily put their fist through the other man’s face?
Well, let’s start with this. At the Great North Run in Newcastle last year, David Campbell, a retired international athlete from Kildare, was introduced to an affable American, Mario, who soon flagged his accent, his age, and his background as a middle-distance runner.
“Irish,” he said. “You must know Tom Chamney?”
“Yeah,” said Campbell. “He’s a c**t.”
Mario’s face dropped.
“You do know… me and Tom are friends? We see each other on a regular basis.”
“Really?” said Campbell, pausing for a moment.
“He’s still a c**t.”
At his home in Gothenburg, Chamney recounts the story with a laugh, while 5,000 miles west, at his home in Eugene, Oregon, Campbell smiles as it’s told back to him.
“Yeah,” he says with pride. “I’ll stand over that.”
They were once friendly, but never friends. Two athletes who met at their peak, thrown together on a track like a hadron collider. Chamney. Campbell. For years, Irish athletics was split down the seam by those two names, which came to embody polarising traits.
Chamney, from Clonmel, is the loudest person in most rooms, machine-gunning a stream of consciousness with a combination of great wit and intelligence. Tall, tanned, and carrying the cheeky smile of the class clown, he is a complex web of contrasts: cocky yet self-deprecating; the swagger of a private-school kid but the chip-on-your-shoulder drive of a street fighter. He’s unafraid to offend but will bear an almighty grudge against those who offend him.
Campbell is quieter, more introspective, and talks with the careful tone of a therapist. Of the two, he was the one with the nice-guy reputation, but that masked a mindset that would happily trample on your soul if you stood in his way.
It’s almost 10 years since they last clashed, but ask them to relive those days and it doesn’t take long for barbs to be thrown back and forth across the Atlantic.
“Thomas only ever tried to beat me instead of being a great athlete,” says Campbell. “For me it was never about beating him — it was doing what I needed to get to the next level. There were a lot better athletes to worry about.”
Chamney concedes he became obsessed with the rivalry, admitting that when Campbell raced in Australia he’d wake up at the crack of dawn to check his result. Then there was the time he was abroad, unable to get online, so he called a friend in Clonmel and demanded the play-by-play on Campbell’s race at the Paris Diamond League.
The apotheosis came in 2009, an Athletics Ireland training camp in Portugal. With emotions yet to simmer from their bitter falling out the previous summer, the Olympic Council of Ireland gathered a large group of athletes for a knowledge-sharing exercise, asking each person to explain the tactics they used in their respective races.
“There’s only one tactic I employ,” Chamney announced to the room. “Beat David Campbell every single time.”
Everyone fell silent, afraid to laugh, while Chamney sat there with a satisfied grin.
“Campbell was four or five chairs away and I knew he was fuming,” he says. “Aw man, it was priceless.”
Looking back, the threads weaving their careers together show they have more in common than they’d like to admit.
Both were decent but unspectacular juniors, who clawed their way to senior championships via the single-minded obsession of a stalker.
Both had to escape Ireland to elevate themselves to world-class and, in the end, both careers didn’t so much burn out as fade away — their final competitive fires flickering out in desperate isolation.
For Campbell, the wheels came off towards the end of 2009, when he was dealing with both the break-up of his marriage and a chronic, nagging hamstring injury.
“I lost power in my left leg, panicked, got surgery, did all sorts, and I never got back from there,” he says.
“It was that simple.”
He tried, alright. To sustain his dream of making the 2012 Olympics he started work as a physio for the Melbourne Track Club, who he trained with since 2007, but in the summer of 2012 he had an unwanted epiphany.
Pacing athletes through a hard track session, he popped his Achilles tendon and crashed to the track, and as he laid there a female athlete came over, asking if he’d take a look at her calf.
“When you go down and people are asking about their legs, that was the moment I knew,” he says. “I was a physio, not an athlete.”
Chamney’s career began to falter in 2010. He over-trained for the European Championships and went to Barcelona running on empty, the best medal chance of his career disintegrating before his eyes as he trailed home ninth in the 1500m heat.
“The worst day of my life,” he says. “That was the beginning of the end.”
In 2011 his body never felt right, and he struggled with a painful condition called osteitis pubis.
Initially misdiagnosed as a sports hernia, it dragged on for six months. He eventually underwent surgery but the cycle of pain and stress led to him developing chronic fatigue syndrome, which wiped him out for several months more. In 2012 he got back racing but was always wading against an ever-strengthening tide.
“I said if one more thing goes wrong in 2013, I’m quitting. You can almost have an allergic reaction to training when you’ve done so much for so long — your body starts to reject what you’re giving it.”
He had borrowed several thousand euro off his father to fund surgery in Germany, which left him more driven than ever to return and justify the investment. But his 1500m best was 3:36.83, and in four indoor races in 2013 Chamney couldn’t get within 10 seconds of that. The game was up.
“I sat at home one night and burst into tears down the phone to my Dad, telling him I couldn’t do this anymore. I’m 28, running out of money and I can’t look myself in the mirror and continue to be an athlete. I was like: f**k it, I’m done.”
He left feeling betrayed by his sport, and many years later Chamney can’t mask his feelings for Athletics Ireland, specifically its high-performance director at the time, Kevin Ankrom.
“He came in and wrote me off straight away. He said I underperformed at the Europeans and that his computer statistics suggested my best days were behind me. It turned out he was right, but if you say that to an athlete who’s been injured for six months, I was like, ‘who the f**k is this guy?’ “I know I’m not Derval [O’Rourke] or [David] Gillick. I’m not our best but I’m nearly our best. And you’re telling me the first time I’ve met you to forget about it? From that moment on I hated him and I hate him to this day, and I mean that.”
The worst part of the long goodbye, says Chamney, was an apparent lack of interest from his association.
“They could have cast me aside with a bit of grace and dignity and said, ‘you’re not in our plans but what can we do to help?’ No one even asked. I was able to deal with that, but if it was someone who’s liable to experience depression, it could have been catastrophic, honest to God, because I was in a really dark place.”
The chief person he blames, however, is the man in the mirror.
“Ultimately I robbed myself of the opportunity, thinking I could do what I used to do — train hard. But I should have treated my body with more respect.” A thought hits him: “Maybe if I’d been doping, I would have been okay.”
They knew at the time, and know even better now, that theirs was a rigged game, its ideal of fairness little more than a facade.
Campbell and Chamney are quick to note dopers never cost them a medal — they didn’t produce enough at championships to ever have such complaints — but they spent enough time near the top to hear the whispers.
“You hoped the real level of doping was 5% or 10% but who knows?” says Chamney. “It could have been 40% 50%.”
The biggest eye-opener for Chamney came at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, where he accepted an invitation to go for coffee with a trio of Spanish athletes who had been watching his progression.
“They said, ‘listen, what are you on? What products are you using? There’s no way you can take a second off your PB [without doping]. Word on the street is there’s some new products in Britain: have you heard anything about it?’ I said, ‘sorry to disappoint you, but I haven’t heard anything.’”
The following year Chamney was training in Spain and the same athletes reached out, inviting him to their camp two hours away. “They said, ‘you should come on down. We’re eating the cake and we’ll give you a slice of it.’ I knew what that meant.
“I’m not going to lie: I was tempted. I wondered: should I go there? No one will catch me. But if you test positive in Ireland you’ll carry that burden for the rest of your life. For me that was the deterrent. If someone said, ‘take this stuff, you’re going to be Olympic champ, probably not going to get caught and you’ll make millions of euro,’ maybe I would have had a different attitude, but if you might make a hundred grand and maybe get caught, and your life is ruined and everyone is ashamed of you, it’s just not worth it.
“The sad thing is we tarnish the Spanish that they’re all on it, but I know for a fact they weren’t. They had European champions and some of the best in the world who were clean as a whistle — I’d bet my kid’s life on it. But the other guys bring the whole thing down.”
Campbell’s approach, throughout his career, was that he didn’t want to know.
“I never thought about it once — you looked after yourself,” he says. “You talk to Kenyans and they’ll tell you the Ethiopians are on drugs, you work with Americans and they’ll tell you someone else is on drugs, you work with Europeans and they’ll tell you all the Americans are on drugs. Everyone gets in this cycle of bullshit, but as an athlete you shouldn’t have time for that — you should be conducting yourself properly.
“I’m sure some were doing stuff and I still beat them. I can sleep well knowing I took nothing, and other people have to live with their decisions.”
Campbell looks around and wonders why, in athletics, the conversation always has to turn this way.
“There’s drugs in our sport but there’s drugs in every sport. There’s enough other stories to write about, so I’d like to see us get on with it and have young people inspired.”
If there is one lesson he could pass to the next generation, it is to take their shot — set off in search of your dream because even if you fail, the pursuit will be a source of permanent pride.
To get to the same place, he and Chamney chose very different paths.
Campbell opted for an Irish base during his college years then ventured abroad to reach the next level. Chamney, meanwhile, took the well-worn US scholarship trail to Notre Dame University in Indiana before relocating to Limerick to train professionally.
He went to America in 2002 with a best of 1:51 for 800m and came home five years later running 1:46. “Best decision I ever made,” he says.
At the European Indoor Championships in 2007, Chamney met Enrique Pascual, a renowned Spanish coach who led Fermin Cacho to Olympic 1500m gold in 1992, and Pascual agreed to take over his coaching duties.
Later that year he moved to Soria, 125 miles north of Madrid, where he trained with some of Spain’s best athletes — although that proved more a curse than a blessing.
“There was a lot of tension, a poisonous atmosphere, and everyone kind of hated everyone,” he says.
“The training was ridiculous: five track sessions a week, three weights sessions and every single run, be it a morning or recovery run, the last 5-6km was balls-out, to the max. After three or four months I couldn’t get out of bed. I was f**ked.”
He returned home in 2008, setting up in UL and rejoining former coach Seán McManus. At that point, Campbell looked the more likely to reach the Beijing Olympics. Two years older than Chamney, he had matured into Ireland’s best male middle-distance runner.
Campbell’s early 20s had drifted by without him really utilising his talent, but when he enrolled for a Master’s at DCU, he started to take the sport more seriously. After graduating he joined Olympian James Nolan for a year of training in South Africa and in 2006 he qualified for the European Championships, where he met Nic Bideau, the Australian who is head of the Melbourne Track Club.
Campbell jumped at Bideau’s invitation to join their team, selling his car and racking up several thousand euro in debt to finance his dream.
“It was either that or go work 9-5 in a bank and that would destroy my soul,” says Campbell, who returned to Ireland a much better athlete in 2007. “My discipline was my biggest asset — how I ate, slept, trained. You had to sink or swim in Australia. In Ireland the bar was to make a team but there it was: who gives a f**k if you qualify? Loads of people qualify.”
In 2007 Chamney and Campbell went into the National Championships with both holding the 800m B-standard time for the World Championships, meaning it was a race-off for one available spot.
Campbell won, crossing the line with his arms stretched wide like airplane wings, a drawn-out celebration that rankled his rival.
“I said to my mother afterwards,” recalls Chamney, “‘There was no need for him to do that.’”
Athletics, by and large, is a civil sport, its structure typically incubating it from the kill-or-be-killed mentality of head-to-head battle. The rare exception is in a selection race-off, where victory is predicated not just on your success, but a rival’s failure.
In July 2008, both athletes had again achieved the 800m B-standard for the Beijing Olympics, which left them thinking they would miss the Games, given the Olympic Council of Ireland had long stated that only A-standards would be accepted. But the week of the national championships, the OCI reversed its call and decided, behind closed doors, to accept B-standards.
That left one Olympic spot up for grabs. Campbell or Chamney. Kill or be killed.
On the eve of Irish nationals, Chamney was still in Belgium, preparing to launch one final attempt at the A-standard at a race in Heusden. While doing his laundry, he got a call from Irish team manager Patsy McGonagle, who knew of the OCI reversal and told him if he didn’t get back to race in Dublin, Campbell would be selected. Chamney bundled his wet clothes into a bag, ran into the street, hailed a taxi and got on the first flight home.
“That was the most bitter, the most dislike I felt for Dave as an athlete. If he was going to the Olympics he was going to have to f**king go through me.”
Campbell, meanwhile, lined up for the national final unaware that the winner would be picked for Beijing, and he had no response when Chamney out-kicked him in the home straight to take victory. When Chamney was announced on the team, there was an immediate backlash from many, including Sonia O’Sullivan, whose husband Bideau coached Campbell.
“It’s supposed to be the accumulation of every little boy’s dream, but what’s in the newspapers? You’ve Sonia saying this is a disgrace, Campbell complaining it wasn’t fair and half the Irish athletics public thinking I pulled a fast one,” says Chamney. “They made such a f**king drama out of it.” Campbell’s issue was not so much that Chamney had information he didn’t, but that he wouldn’t initially come clean about it.
“I thought, ‘why are you protecting other people?’” says Campbell. “‘You talk loud enough all the time, so why not own what you say and admit you were told it?’
“I’d like to say I’m over it, but I’m not. I spent a lot of time training, putting myself in positions to become an Olympian, but my opportunity at that point was taken away from me. So yeah, I am bitter about it.”
Chamney went to Beijing two weeks later, though after a stressful, haphazard preparation, his Olympic experience was anything but a dream.
“It was shit,” he says. “There was an atmosphere of apathy from OCI management towards the athletes’ welfare. It was as if we were there solely to get accreditation for blazers, getting tickets to events for blazers. I was like, ‘is this what the Olympics is about? This is shit.’”
Chamney was eliminated after finishing fifth in his 800m heat in 1:47.66.
“The only positive was I walked off the track and said that’s as fast as I could run. But you knew Campbell was sitting at home saying to whoever would listen, ‘oh, it should have been me.’ Well, you should have beaten me at Irish nationals, should have run faster than me in 2008 but you didn’t, so sorry about that.”
After missing out on the 2012 Olympics, the door finally closed on that dream, Campbell set off on a road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way, ignoring everything about the London Games. It would hurt too much to watch from afar.
But when he looks back and charts his last decade, he realises athletics was a genuine gift. After walking away he became a full-time physio, going back to UCD to get a third degree before working alongside renowned therapist Gerard Hartmann at his clinic in Limerick for a year.
In 2015 he started work for the Nike Oregon Track Club in Eugene, overseeing the medical and physiotherapy programme for one of the leading groups in world athletics.
“I’m very, very grateful for what I work in, but I’d much rather have been an athlete,” he admits.
“There was initially a lot of bitterness and disappointment that I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve, but I’m over it now. I have a great life.”
The highlight, he says, was the golden double at the National Championships in 2007, that and beating an international field at the Cork City Sports. His World Championships tilt that year came unstuck after he got food poisoning in Japan, his weight dropping from 61kg to 54kg in the days before the race. He still toed the line, finishing seventh in his heat in 1:46.47 after signing a waiver to acknowledge he was ignoring medical advice.
“No one wanted me to run, but it had been such a journey, from DCU to South Africa to Australia, that I had to find out, one way or another.”
In the end, that line sums up his career — to find out, one way or another, the upper limit of his potential.
For Chamney, life has since pivoted far from athletics, even if the sport initially forged his current path.
He met his wife Johanna, a Swede, at a race in Gothenburg in 2009 and they have two kids, Esther (4) and Ruth (1).
He has lived in Sweden for several years, and in 2014 began a challenge that made a four-minute mile seem like child’s play, opening TomToms Burritos in Gothenburg. “By a million miles, the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says, though business is now booming, with Chamney employing a staff of 14 across two stores and a food truck.
When it comes to athletics, he realises now just how special, how fleeting, those days truly were. His voice sings with giddy enthusiasm when he talks about his favourite race, the Oslo Diamond League in 2009, where both he and Campbell set their lifetime bests over 800m.
Chamney finished third in 1:45.41, Campbell a tick behind in fourth in 1:45.59. Two Irish lads, up there among the world’s best.
“Aside from the birth of my child, that was the best day of my life — I’ll be telling my grandkids about that race,” says Chamney. “It was worth all the shit to reach that high.”
Only the following year, when Campbell was injured and Chamney cruised to the Irish title, did he begin to realise the value of having a rival.
“I was like, ‘this is so boring — is this what it would have been like if Dave was never born?’”
Campbell, for his part, admits that if Chamney ever visits his neck of the woods, he’d invite him out for a beer — look back and laugh at those days, the way their stories seemed forever intertwined.
“We just didn’t get on towards the end of our careers, but it’s easier to compete against someone you don’t like,” he says.
“I’ve always had massive respect for Tom as an athlete.”
Chamney, meanwhile, changes his tone as we enter the home straight of a two-hour conversation. The anger that once flared in his voice starts to mellow, replaced with reflective gratitude.
“I loved having Campbell around and I have him to thank for a lot — it was good, honest bitterness and rivalry,” he says.
“There was such a dichotomy between us, but we were at our best around the same time and going at each other hammer and tongs.”
“Aw f**k,” he adds. “It was brilliant. The best of times.”