Athletics: 'Injustice' fires Whitlock return

Back from a drugs ban, Britain's leading pole vaulter is protesting her innocence. Simon Turnbull reports

For Janine Whitlock, it has been the most difficult vault of all. From the dole queue, the breadline, and the wilderness of a two-year drugs ban, the forgotten woman of British athletics has propelled herself back into the international arena and up to fourth place in the world pole-vault rankings. She has done so, she defiantly maintains, fired by a burning sense of injustice.

For Janine Whitlock, it has been the most difficult vault of all. From the dole queue, the breadline, and the wilderness of a two-year drugs ban, the forgotten woman of British athletics has propelled herself back into the international arena and up to fourth place in the world pole-vault rankings. She has done so, she defiantly maintains, fired by a burning sense of injustice.

"I think I have been unfairly treated," Whitlock told Sportsweek. "Other people have given positive tests and had exceptional circumstances accepted, and I think mine are the most exceptional circumstances you could get. I do feel cheated, to be quite honest. That's why I've trained full-time for the past two years and why I've come back - because I've got so much to prove to people.

"I want to show I can jump these heights off my own ability, and that I have always done so. I want to do it for myself too, because I feel like I've been robbed of so much in the last two years. At the time of the positive test, I'd won the Commonwealth Games trial, and probably would have won the Commonwealth Games."

When Whitlock vaulted 4.41m at the English Common-wealth Games trials in June 2002, her 37th British record, she was looking forward to challenging for Commonwealth gold in Manchester the following month as a member of the local Trafford Athletics Club. But then the urine sample she gave at the meeting was found to contain traces of methandienone, an anabolic steroid.

Her next international competition, as it happened, was not until yesterday, the Jeff White Motors Indoor International at the Welsh National Indoor Athletics Centre in Cardiff - a low-key fixture ahead of the first major indoor event of the season, the Norwich Union Indoor International, featuring Kelly Holmes, in Glasgow next Saturday. Wearing the England vest she was denied the chance to don in the City of Manchester Stadium three years ago, she won with a clearance of 4.15m before narrowly failing when the bar was raised to 4.30m.

There were no fanfares for Whitlock. The most prolific British record-breaker of recent times was not mentioned in the meeting preview posted on the UK Athletics website, and her name remains conspicuously absent from the list of 128 British athletes profiled on the site run by the domestic governing body.

"I didn't expect to be welcomed back with open arms," Whitlock said, "although I do think I deserve to be. As far as I'm concerned I'm innocent, and I'll always say that, because it's the truth. Why would anybody go through the two years I've had and come back if they weren't innocent?

"I've trained full-time and I don't know how I've done it, to be honest. I lost my Lottery funding and all of my sponsorship and I had so many appeals to pay for. I had to sign on the dole and it was a struggle sometimes just to afford food. I also had to have two operations on my right knee.

"I can understand when I say I'm innocent that people might think, 'Oh God, well anybody would say that', because how many people own up to being guilty? The problem I had was that I didn't know how the stuff got in my system, so I didn't have any proof to show people that I was innocent.

"The only things I was taking at the time were supplements provided by a coach, and if I have to say how it got into my system then that would be my guess. These supplements were bought off the internet, which I only found out after I had my drugs test. If I'd known that beforehand I would have said, 'Hang on a minute'."

The German Sports University in Cologne discovered that a supplement being sold to athletes in Britain at the time contained high levels of methandienone. Whitlock, though, was ultimately held responsible for traces of the steroid found in her sample. Last year she appealed unsuccessfully to the British Olympic Association on the grounds that her case was similar to that of Greg Rusedski, who was one of eight tennis players cleared after the Association of Tennis Professionals ruled that their trainers may have been responsible for distributing supplements contaminated with nandrolone.

Now 31 - and under the guidance of a new coach, Egryn Jones - Whitlock has achieved the qualifying standard for the European Indoor Championships in Madrid in March. At Loughborough last weekend she vaulted 4.25m, a height which puts her fourth in the world thus far in 2005.

"That's great," she said. "I didn't realise that. I've worked really hard to come back and jump this high, but me and my coach are looking towards 4.50m, 4.60m. There's definitely a lot more to come yet."

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