The photographer pointing his lens up towards Lisa Dobriskey from the empty water jump at the Paula Radcliffe Track at Loughborough University mentions something about the faintly menacing hue of the cumulonimbus gathering up above. "Ah, the dark clouds of the Russian drug cheats coming in from the middle distance," you mumble, half-mockingly, much of the preceding half an hour having been taken up with bombarding poor Dobriskey, a natural ray of human sunshine if ever there was one, with questions about those who have brought a cynical depression to her specialist event, the women's 1500 metres.
You start to apologise for continuing to darken the mood but Dobriskey interjects: "No, I think it's important that the public know about these things and about how they can affect people's lives." So here goes then...
Happily for Dobriskey, the drugs bust that caught seven Russian athletes literally (if you pardon the French) taking the piss on the eve of the Beijing Olympics last summer – they were found guilty of "urine substitution" – has had the effect of levelling the playing field of the women's 1500m and opening a discernible path to the major championship medal rostrum. It extended a hand of opportunity that Dobriskey very nearly snatched in Beijing 12 months ago.
In the absence of the busted Russians – notably Yelena Soboleva, the world indoor champion and record-holder, and Tatyana Tomashova, twice the outdoor world champion – the woman from Ashford in Kent was one place and 0.32sec shy of the podium in fourth place. It was a tantalising near miss that had Dobriskey in tears of frustration but it was still the best performance by a female British metric miler in the Olympic arena, Kelly Holmes' golden run of 2004 apart, since Christina Boxer (like Dobriskey, a graduate of Loughborough's track and field academy) finished fourth in Seoul in 1988.
There have been tears of pain and frustration for the 25-year-old bundle of positive energy to deal with since then. A stress fracture to the lower back and a thigh injury have restricted Dobriskey to a late charge in the 1500m stakes for the World Championships, which open in Berlin on Saturday.
Her comeback has gained encouraging momentum. A third place, ahead of her British rivals, at the Aviva London Grand Prix a fortnight ago was followed, three days later, by a 4min 02.28sec clocking for fifth place in a field loaded with World Championship contenders at the Grand Prix meeting in Monaco. Maryam Jamal of Bahrain and Gelete Burka of Ethiopia, first and second in Monte Carlo, head for Berlin as the favourites. Three other challengers have broken four minutes this summer, although happily for Dobriskey – whose lifetime best stands at 4min 00.64sec – none of the Russian dopers will be standing in her way.
The not-so-magnificent seven appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be reinstated in time for the World Championships but instead had their two-year bans extended to two years and nine months. "I'm quite pleased that that's happening," Dobriskey says. "I thought if they were able to come back and compete at these World Championships it would have kind of made a mockery of the system. It wouldn't have been fair on the clean athletes and I don't think it would have set a very good example; having the knowledge that people could cheat and then be back for the next World Championships. I think it's a good stance that the authorities have taken, for athletes right across the board. I'm quite happy about it."
Not that the cloud has completely disappeared. The seven – among them Olga Yegorova, whose presence at the 2001 Worlds in Edmonton moved Paula Radcliffe and Hayley Tullett (both also Loughborough graduates) to hold a banner proclaiming "EPO cheats out" – will be free to compete from April 2011, and of course at the Olympic Games in London in 2012.
"I don't know what kind of shape they'll come back in," Dobriskey says. "Obviously their performances were enhanced by illegal substances, so they're going to be under the watchful eye of Wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency]. I do hope that if they do cheat again it'll be detected and caught. And if they're clean and they can still perform as well, then we'll just have to wait and see. I don't really like to think about them at the moment."
Understandably so. Having to compete with dopers has been a wearying occupational hazard for the best of Britain's female 1500m runners down the years. In 1987, when Kirsty Wade (another from Loughborough's long line of world-class middle-distance women) finished seventh in the World Championship final in Rome, she knew she was racing against rivals topped up by something more than natural talent. Now 46 and running a bed and breakfast on the Isle of Lewis, she can reflect on the fact that four of the women who finished ahead of her either failed drugs tests in subsequent years or were products of the steroid-driven East German track and field system, as painstakingly documented in Stasi files after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Morally at least, she can stake a claim on the bronze medal as the third finisher with a clean career record.
Tullett has a moral claim on the gold from the World Championship final of 2003. At least she got on to the rostrum, winning bronze, but of the two women who stood alongside her that day in Paris the victorious Tomashova was caught in the Russian drugs bust and Turkey's Sureyya Ayhan was banned in 2007. Dobriskey also points to the 1500m final in Helsinki in 2005, when Helen Clitheroe came 10th and the first four, by degrees over the years, all proved to be drug cheats.
"It's such a sad state of affairs," Dobriskey reflects. "It's been so damaging for the sport. And there's nothing you, as an athlete, can do about it. You can't control what other athletes do. You can just hope that the testing system is good enough. Having said that, I do think that the science today is catching up on them."
As the clean-up operation continues, she can only keep her head down on the training track at Loughborough, where she has settled since completing her English Literature degree, and concentrate on making the most of her considerable natural talent. Under the astute coaching of George Gandy, the middle and long-distance guru who guided Jack Buckner to World Championship 5,000m bronze in Rome in 1987, she already has a Commonwealth Games gold medal to match her sparkling demeanour.
Berlin might possibly come too quickly for her on the comeback trail but there is surely much more to come – especially if the playing field of the women's 1500m can stay on the level.
Team GB medal chances
Jessica Ennis Starts on top of the heptathlon rankings and should be on the podium, possibly with gold. Her big threat is Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska of Ukraine.
Christine Ohuruogu Untimely hamstring injury tipped 400m odds heavily in favour of American Sanya Richards but Ohuruogu is a proven major championship performer and should not be discounted on the medal front.
Paula Radcliffe Has not raced since winning the New York City Marathon last November because of a foot injury. If she runs, she will be capable of beating home hope Irina Mikitenko to marathon gold.
Phillips Idowu Nelson Evora of Portugal, the Olympic champion, starts as favourite in the triple jump but it would be just like Idowu, after a quietish season, to upset the odds. Should at least win a medal.
Men's 4 X 400m relay Michael Bingham, Martyn Rooney and Co should be in the medal mix.
Simon TurnbullReuse content