Drugs: Chasing the demon: As search for the truth continues, is there substance to Modahl's defence? Norman Fox reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
OVER the past few days the British Athletic Federation's executive chairman, Professor Peter Radford, has heard it all. Pleas of innocence from Diane Modahl, her coach (who is also her husband), club-mates, friends and relatives. But the opinion he must have respected above all was that of Sir Arthur Gold, the BAF's vastly experienced adviser on drugs. His advice was that there was no evidence of irregularity in the analysis of two samples that revealed large amounts of testosterone in Modahl's body. In the circumstances it would have seemed incumbent on any self- respecting national athletics governing organisation to act on the apparently damning evidence. The BAF did not. Why?

The federation has not only insisted on defying the view of the international governing body (IAAF) that they have a moral obligation to withdraw the British women's team from next weekend's World Cup final at Crystal Palace, for which Modahl's points in the qualifying competition were crucial, but refused to make any statement even hinting that Modahl is guilty. In fact, Professor Radford has all but supported her pleas by saying the charge is 'trumped up'. Officially, they want to give her an opportunity to explain the findings of the tests, but do any of the theories offered in her defence stand up?

The whole case is packed with unanswered questions. There is little reason to doubt that the specimen tested by the Portuguese authorities showed a level of testosterone three times higher than that of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who was banned after the Seoul Olympics. The question that people close to Modahl have raised is whether there was any tampering with the specimen. Gold, chairman of BAF's drugs advisory committee and a great servant and supporter of British athletics, has had to admit: 'I have no reason to think that the sample was not hers or was not examined strictly under the rules of the International Olympic Committee.'

These days almost all samples go straight into containers designed and made in Britain by a company which claims that tampering is impossible. Nevertheless, the Russians have come under suspicion. Apparently they knew about the positive test a month ago, before the British federation was officially notified. Certainly the Russians had something to gain by Modahl's suspension, because they would have been given a place in the World Cup had Britain been disqualified. But it seems unlikely that the Russians have the ability to fix dope tests outside their own country.

One of the more sinister thoughts voiced in support of Modahl is that someone somewhere is bent on causing terrible damage to British athletics. Whoever that person is, he or she would have to harbour a serious grudge and be powerful enough to know of ways to persuade seemingly professional and unbiased people in laboratories to tamper with samples. Another is that Modahl herself has not disclosed a serious illness that could have resulted in her body producing unusually high amounts of testosterone. The final theory, and the least likely, is that between the time of the first sample being tested and last Wednesday when the second was examined in the presence of Modahl's husband and British athletics officials, its chemical content changed of its own accord.

All of these theories - or excuses - seem flawed.

If someone had the means to open the sealed container, fill it with contaminated urine and reseal it, why select Modahl, who so many say is 'the last person' one would expect to take drugs. And why plant a sample with a level of testosterone so high that it immediately left serious doubts as to whether anyone could have been taking such doses undetected. It would have been more credible and just as damaging to Britain if the specimen had been far less over the limit than Modahl's alleged ratio of 42:1. Such a lack of subtlety is not compatible with someone clever enough to know how to tamper with samples in the first place, although the rumour circulating the Grand Prix final in Paris yesterday was that Modahl's ratio was nearer 12:1.

The serious illness theory leaves one fundamental unanswered question. If Modahl was so ill as to produce a high level of male hormones, why was she competing at all? When she was withdrawn from the Commonwealth Games she had already qualified for the 800m semi-finals, surely not the performance of a seriously sick athlete. If she was taking medicine, why was it not declared? In addition, experts say that even when women get tumours on the ovary, the levels of testosterone produced are rarely as high as those found in Modahl's specimen. Nevertheless, she has reportedly undergone tests over the past few days to discover whether any condition might have produced her high levels of testosterone.

Although Dr Malcolm Brown, doctor to the British team, says he believes Modahl to be innocent, and appears to give credence to the theory that the specimen may have changed character in the period between the A and B tests, Professor Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IAAF's medical commission, totally refuted the idea. He pointed out that the first and second tests were identical, and went on to criticise Dr Brown for the second time in a month.

After the Wariso affair, Dr Brown said that the amount of ephedrine in the sprinter's sample was so negligible as to be meaningless in terms of enhanced performance. Professor Ljungqvist discounted that, saying that all tests over the limit showed that the athlete had taken a substance that enhanced performance. He said Dr Brown was 'sending out the wrong message'. Last week, he said that Dr Brown was again drawing conclusions without sufficient evidence.

If the sum of the evidence in favour of Modahl so far amounts to nothing more than sympathy and unsupported suggestions that she is a victim of bungled testing, she is either guilty or another, so far unrevealed, sequence of events took place. In spite of Gold's confidence, the possibility that the testing procedure in Lisbon went wrong, possibly resulting in someone else's sample being analysed, has to be considered, even though cases of mistakes in random test are relatively rare. For the time being, Modahl has to be given the benefit of that doubt.

Guilty or innocent, she is in the centre of an ongoing political battle between the British federation and the IAAF, who are not best pleased with the British anyway. The IAAF's spokesman, Christopher Winner, says that everything the British officials have done so far 'suggests they doubt the validity of the procedure for dope testing and its reliability'. However, the IAAF had no alternative than to back down because there is nothing in their own rules to say that a country must be banned from a competition after the results of the A and B tests. The appeal, within a 30-day period, is an integral part of the correct procedure. The British federation is within its rights but only after Modahl states her case will they know whether their technically correct but morally debatable stance was right.

(Photograph omitted)