Olympics: ‘Gang life almost killed me – sprint was my way out’


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Darren Campbell pictured with fellow sprinters Jamie Baulch and Paul Gray in 1996
Campbell (right) won the 200-meter Olympic silver in 2000, plus the 4×100-meter relay gold in 2004.

For a generation of athletics fans, Darren Campbell was the face of the British sprint.

His 200 meters of silver at the 2000 Olympics and 4×100 meters of gold four years later brought him wide respect and fame.

Yet for years, the source behind his inner instinct has remained hidden from public knowledge.

This is the story of how Campbell emerged as a talented teenage sprinter while leading a double life as a gang member; how the plot of fate prevented the planned robbery of the cafe, how he survived the fight in the city center and why he eventually escaped from Manchester after the murder of a family friend.

Campbell, now 47, rarely spoke about his experiences growing up on the Sale racetrack estate – a council estate on the outskirts of South Manchester.

As he prepares to lead the current crop of British youth through the Tokyo Games as a sprint coach on the GB team, he decided to expose it all – “good, bad and ugly” – in an attempt to inspire others.

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Campbell and his younger sister Sophia were raised by their mother, Marva, in a two-bedroom apartment on the Sale Race property.

He met his father for the first time at the age of 13 at the sports awards ceremony. He then decided to give up his father’s last name – Grant – in favor of his mother’s Campbell.

“I told my mom: one day I’ll become famous and I don’t want my dad to accept praise,” Campbell says. “If he tries to take credit for it, he’ll have to explain to the world why we have different names.”

Born in 1973, Campbell has already told everyone who would listen that he will one day compete in the Olympics. He was inspired by Carl Lewis’ performances at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where the American sprinter won gold in the 100, 200, long jump and 4×100 m.

At the time, the young budding athlete had been competing for Sale Harriers for four years, enrolled after his mother was honored with her first day of school sports.

Campbell’s mother was a constant source of strength and inspiration for her son. She was a strict parent – Campbell describes her as “the scariest on the estate” – but the fact that she often did two or three jobs meant that he too spent a lot of time with his extended group of friends, for whom trouble was never far away.

“In the beginning, it was a fraternity, a group,” he says. “Unfortunately, as time went on, it became more and more a gang. Things like ‘we against the world,’ because that’s how you found yourself.”

“I wouldn’t say we’re bad kids because we’re not. But as we got older it was easy to get involved in different things on the estate. You became a product of your environment. The things you see are gangs, gun crimes, knives, drugs.

“There were a lot of fights. That means you have to learn to protect yourself and your friends. Until then – by protecting each other – we became a gang. Then things escalated from there.”

Darren Campbell filmed during school days with two friends
Campbell (right) with friends Marlon (left) and Tommy (center). They stayed in touch and remain close

As Campbell’s life turned ominously, his athletics flourished.

The success of the young teams at Sale Harriers was accompanied by school honors at the regional and then national levels. Yet at 16, Campbell’s Olympic dream seemed like a world. His immediate concern was how to put some money in his pocket, which is why he agreed to take part in the robbery of the pub.

“As a group, we sat down and thought about how we could make some quick money,” he says.

“Someone came up with the idea of ​​a pub, not an estate, that we could go to after closing and rob that night. To me, that sounded like a crazy plan, and when I rode my bike on the way there Somehow I looked up at the heavens and said ‘show me a sign’.

“Soon after, my bike got a breakthrough. That meant that because I was the one who was supposed to ride with the money, because I was the fastest, we felt like we couldn’t keep going.

“I always experienced it as a“ sliding door ”moment and I always felt happy that it didn’t happen.My life would be completely different.Overcoming the fear of doing it the first time would make it the second, third and fourth time much easier.

“It would just be a spiral, that’s how I see it.”

Darren Campbell
Campbell (center) after winning the British Rail Sprinter Youth 100m title in 1989 – a planned pub robbery

At the time, Campbell was still struggling to find a way out.

Members of his inner circle were beginning to bond with other more serious gangs on the Moss Side, which brought unwanted attention and a growing threat of violence.

“It was like living in two different worlds,” he says. “I had this world of athletics, and then I had that other world with my friends, with the people I grew up with. They protected me and I protected them.

“I felt like I had a lot more to lose, but I was naive about the risks I was taking with my future. I certainly didn’t look at my life thinking you would represent your country in two years.”

The sport was getting serious, but so was his gang.

In the summer of 1991, at the age of 17, he won 100 and 200 million gold at the European Junior Championships in Thessaloniki, Greece. Upon his return, he avoided a stabbing attempt during a fight at Manchester’s Arndale Center.

“A gang of guys spotted me and my friend in the shops,” he says. “My friend beat up one of their friends and they decided to pick us up.

“A knife was taken out. The person with the knife tried to stab me. I managed to get out of my coat, so the knife cut my coat.

“Luckily we managed to escape. Being part of a gang and creating those battle lines meant you could find yourself in a situation at any moment where you might end up losing your life.”

If the knife fight served as a shocking reminder of the wire rope Campbell walked, the murder of his mother’s godson and a gang colleague ‘T’ – killed in another brawl – came as a devastating blow.

“T was part of a gang based in Moss Side,” Campbell says.

“He didn’t live on the property where I grew up. He was involved in various things and got into a situation where there was an argument with another group and they basically got someone to kill him. That’s the reality of it To this day we still don’t know who killed.

“It was hard. It showed me how fragile life can be and how fast I can take someone. It led me to a situation where I had to decide – whether to stay in Manchester or not – because my mom heard I was on the list for a hit.

“When she asked me to leave Manchester, I just knew I had to go.”

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Offers were arriving. After further success at the 1992 World Junior Championships in Seoul, South Korea, where he won silver in the 100 and 200 meters, as well as gold in the 4×100 meters relay, Campbell was in demand. He eventually decided to go train with Colin Jackson’s coach, Malcolm Arnold, in Newport, South Wales.

Campbell initially stayed with Arnold’s family as he crossed from the junior track to the race. But while happily looking back on those times with a mentor he describes as “the best coach in the world,” the young Mancunian didn’t immediately start living in athletics.

Disappointed with the influence he felt drugs had at the highest level of sport, he decided to walk away and instead aimed to transition to football.

The spells in Plymouth Argyle and non-league Weymouth followed before the realization dawned that if he was going to do any sport, it would be athletics.

Campbell returned to regular training in South Wales in 1995, along with Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, Jamie Baulch and Paul Gray. He continued fourth in the 100m at the British Championships the following year and was selected as part of the 4x100m relay for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

There was no fairytale introduction to the Campbell Games as he threw the bat in the relay semifinals, but the results were slowly improving. The 100-meter silver medal at the 1997 British Championships was followed by a relay at the World Championships the same year.

He then made his big breakthrough in 1998 with national and European titles in the 100 meters, along with relay gold at the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games.

Campbell’s life was finally on the right track. That same year he met his wife Clair with whom he now has three children, and Newport is still their home today.

But he never forgot his roots, remaining in close contact throughout his life with childhood friends and former gang members Lynx and Marlon. And he believes the fighting qualities he relied on in his youth played a key role in the success that was to come on the international senior scene.

Campbell made his lifelong dream of racing in the Olympic 100m final in Sydney in 2000, finishing in sixth place. At those Games, he took the silver medal from the 200 meters, and four years later in Athens, gold arrived in the 4×100 meters relay.

By the time he retired in 2006, he had also won two bronze medals and one silver at the World Championships, three gold and a silver at the European Championship level and two gold and one bronze at the Commonwealth.

It is difficult for any athlete to surpass the experience of winning Olympic gold. For Campbell, the moment brought extra strength.

“When I won Olympic gold, the reason I wasn’t in a hurry at the celebration with the rest of the team was because I was literally in a flood of tears,” Campbell says.

“It was as if I had feedback all my life – good, bad and ugly.

“Everything just flooded me, along with the realization of how lucky I was to have managed it and made my dreams come true.

“Those tears were not just for me. They (his old friends) were there with me the whole time. My success is their success. That’s how I look at it and that’s why I’m so grateful that they went through life the way I went through it.

“They may not have had the success that I had as an athlete, but I see that they are successful as people because I know how hard their life was to begin with.

“I know we were lucky to get through it and we’re still here.”

That’s why Campbell decided to write his autobiography, Track Record.

“I feel it’s important not to hide where I came from, just to show that anything in life is possible.

“Life is not about where you start, it’s about where you end.”

Darren Campbell, filmed in 2018, is recovering at home after suffering a brain hemorrhage.  He left him "with relief that he is alive"
Darren Campbell, filmed in 2018, is recovering at home after suffering a brain hemorrhage. The rest “relieved him that he was alive”

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