Athletics: Modahl's months of misery

Mike Rowbottom on the stresses faced by the British 800m runner while a wating today's drugs inquiry
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The Independent Online
When Diane Modahl was told at the Commonwealth Games in August that her urine sample had shown illegally high levels of testosterone, she collapsed, her eyes rolling and then opening wide with shock. Susan Deaves, the English women's team manager whose unhappy job it had been to break the news, was deeply alarmed: "I thought, my God, she could be dead."

Thankfully, she was not, but since then she has not been fully alive either. While Vicente, her husband, manager and coach, has devoted himself to the case which a five-strong British Athletic Federation panel will hear at a London hotel today and tomorrow, Modahl has existed in a bewildered limbo. She has continued to train in a desultory fashion, but the lack of a clear future in the sport has rendered it little more than therapeutic exercise.

She has persisted with a BA course at Manchester University in - ironically - media studies, but the allegations made by Liz McColgan in October that a large number of British athletes were taking drugs - allegations the former world 10,000 metres champion subsequently toned down - were said to have upset her so much that she took an unplanned break from her studies.

She has attended two award ceremonies at her club, Sale Harriers, the second of which, according to the club's team manager, Eric Hughes, was "to show that we still believed in her". She was frequently on the verge of tears and once had to be persuaded to go back into the room.

Stories speculating that the huge levels of testosterone recorded in her sample - four times that which saw Ben Johnson banned for life - were caused by serious illness put her into a panic. It took considerable effort on behalf of close friends to calm her fears. Her refuge has been her home in Sale, with her husband and two cats.

"The whole thing has had a profound effect on her," said Malcolm Brown, the British team doctor who has been advising the Modahls on their case. "Some of the time she has been in a dreadful state.

"What has been particularly sickening for her is the fact that athletics has been her life, and now it is athletics that has turned round and slapped her in the face in a very vicious way. To come back will be a very hard step for her to take."

The British sprinter Paula Thomas has spoken frequently in the last three months to Modahl, who is godmother to her son.

"If you ask me whether she's coping, the answer is, no she's not. But she is trying to get on with her life. Going to college is something that helps her get away from things for a while.

"She's had a lot of letters of support from the general public and from other athletes, saying that they are thinking about her. But it is really difficult for everyone that is close to her trying to keep her spirits up.

"She is ticking over in training - just going through the motions. She says it is very difficult for her at the moment. Vicente has been working really intensively on her case. He has been absolutely superb. You couldn't hope for a better manager or husband. But Diane is a bit too close to be a help."

Even if the BAF panel finds in her favour, Modahl will not be cleared to run by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which has effectively decided that she needs to give a clear medical reason for her test finding if she is to avoid a four-yearban.

Such an explanation may well be forthcoming. Even though Modahl is not seriously ill, there are strong suggestions that she has some medical condition which has led to hormonal imbalance in the past.

There is, too, a welter of evidence that Modahl's testing was not conducted effectively - most notably that her sample was kept unrefrigerated for two days by the Portuguese testing laboratory and hence may have been crucially modified by bacteria. An a

b sence in the findings of metabolites - processed testosterone which normally complements abnormal findings of unprocessed testosterone - will also be raised.

But the IAAF has indicated that any querying of the testing procedure will have to be considered by an arbitration panel next year. Modahl's return from limbo looks like being a fleeting one, whatever the verdict.

"Diane has gone through such a lot of mental strain that she is thinking very short term at the moment," Thomas said. "Knowing Vicente and Diane as I do, I should imagine they will want to clear their name whatever it takes.

"But whatever happens, at the end of the day she's still going to be my friend. Nothing is going to alter that."