Athletics: Modahl seeks a quick return to normality

A four-year nightmare can be partially erased with a return to the podium today.
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DIANE MODAHL steps on to the track at the Bukit Jalil stadium in Kuala Lumpur today seeking a title which, in her own mind, she has never truly lost - that of Commonwealth Games 800 metres champion.

The memories are still painfully clear of her traumatic recall from the last Commonwealth Games in Victoria - where she arrived to defend the title she had won four years earlier in Auckland - because of a positive drug finding.

Her subsequent success in overturning a four-year ban on appeal has been followed by a gruelling campaign to claim damages and lost earnings from the now-defunct British Athletic Federation.

If the administrators currently dealing with the BAF's affairs do not settle, Modahl - and her husband and coach, Vicente - are preparing for High Court action before Christmas, and again in the spring. The total costs to the administrators, should they lose, are estimated at pounds 2.5m. A settlement figure is believed to be less than a quarter of that.

It is against this background that the 32-year-old from Sale has attempted to take part in these games as just another athlete. No chance.

"Four years is a long time for most people but for me, Victoria seems like yesterday," she said. "It is a very emotional time for me because the memories of 1994 are still so vivid. My nightmare is continuing. But I think the BAF will have to settle because they can't afford a long court case."

If it is a difficult time for Modahl, it is equally stressful for her husband, who has been the strong shoulder on whom she has leant throughout the last four years. In that time, the couple and their daughter, Imani, now two, have been forced to sell their semi-detached house in the Sale suburbs and stay temporarily with Diane's parents before moving into another house which, according to Vicente, is mortgaged to the hilt.

It is a saga which has already generated a book but it has not reached a conclusion. When it does, it is likely to end up on television as Granada TV have the rights to the story.

"When we got to Kuala Lumpur, Diane asked me how I felt about it," Vicente said. "I knew what she meant, because she still doesn't feel totally comfortable representing British athletics while the compensation claim is undecided.

"I have told her to try and enjoy it, to be light-hearted. I am trying to be calm and relaxed whenever I am with her. But it is very difficult. One wrong word from me can spark off negative memories for her or remind her of something, and she goes off for hours on her own.

"The television camera crews from BBC and Sky were following us everywhere when we got to the warm-up area before the opening heats. Diane was beginning to get very tense, but I told her, `Ignore the cameras. Don't look at them. Just talk to me normally'."

Normality has been hard enough for Modahl to achieve. Last season was ruined by glandular fever and a stress fracture, and her preparations for this year were hindered when she missed four weeks' training after pulling a hamstring in May.

At the European Championships last month, she narrowly missed making the final as one of the fastest losers. Since then, she has had the opportunity to work on sharpening up her speed and her form here has raised hopes that she can win a medal - 12 years after taking the 800m silver medal in Edinburgh.

"I am desperate to get on to the podium," she said after qualifying in a semi-final won by the world No 1 and overwhelming favourite, Maria Mutola. Her presence became possible when Mozambique joined the Commonwealth three years ago.

Even yesterday's progress was fought by Modahl. Before setting off for the track, she made a mad search of her room looking for two pairs of her spikes, which she still has not been able to find. "I was looking everywhere, under the bed, in the cupboards," she said. "I don't like to say it, but quite a few things have gone missing from our apartment in the games village. We have been told to lock our valuables away but you don't think about locking away your shoes." She does now - the old, spare spikes in which she ran yesterday will remain under lock and key in a suitcase.

The final will include not just Mutola but her cousin, Argentina Paulino, who won the other semi-final in a Commonwealth Games record of 2min 0.11sec. But Modahl is fit and well and looking forward to running.

"If she could get a medal," her husband said, "after all she has gone through, it will be an unbelievable achievement. Because there is no other athlete who has gone through what she has."