Jenny Meadows has become accustomed to the annual shock of new blood at the sharp end of women's 800m running. At the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games at Hengelo in Holland two years ago, the Wigan athlete was one of the seasoned internationals left stunned by the sudden emergence of Pamela Jelimo, an 18-year-old Kenyan who won in a jaw-dropping 1min 55.76sec and who proceeded to strike Olympic gold in Beijing. Last summer there was another teenaged two-lap sensation out of Africa. Caster Semenya won the World Championship crown at a canter in Berlin, clocking 1:55.54, with Meadows making her mark at global level for the first time, taking the bronze medal in 1:57.93.
As the 2010 outdoor track season gets into swing, it remains to be seen whether Jelimo can regain her form from 2008, and whether Semenya will be cleared to pick up the threads of her embryonic career after the International Association of Athletics Federations consider the results of gender tests undertaken on the 19-year-old South African. In the meantime, the world of women's 800m running has been further stirred by the shock of not new blood but old.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday during the indoor season about how the catching of several doping offenders had helped to level the global playing field in the event, Meadows recalled the despair of her international debut as a half-miler – of sitting in the stands, after being knocked out in the heats at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna, and watching the Slovene Jolanda Ceplak smash the world indoor record set by Christine Wachtel in the days of the steroid-driven East German regime, clocking 1:55.82 after an elbow-to-elbow slug-fest of a duel with the home favourite, Stephanie Graf. "I remember sitting high in the stands watching that final and I think I actually cried," Meadows confided. "I remember saying, 'Oh my goodness, I'm never going to be as good as those girls'."
It was already known in March, when the 29-year-old Meadows followed her Berlin breakthrough with a silver medal-winning run at the World Indoor Championships in Doha, that one reason Ceplak had been so good was because she was taking erythropoietin (EPO), having tested positive for the blood-boosting hormone in 2007. What has since been revealed is that Graf's activities have come under scrutiny as part of an investigation launched by the Austrian National Anti-Doping Agency into a Viennese blood laboratory.
The namesake of the former German tennis player, who announced her sudden retirement on the eve of the Athens Olympics in 2004, has admitted providing blood at the human plasma laboratory in 2003 but denies it was ever re-injected, which would be an offence under international anti-doping rules. Graf won an Olympic 800m silver medal in Sydney in 2000 ahead of Britain's Kelly Holmes, who lost out on the medal front to a long list of rivals who were subsequently unmasked as cheats (Ceplak, Regina Jacobs, Sureyya Ayhan, Olga Yegorova and others) during her life in the middle-distance fast lane.
"Yes, I heard about Graf," Meadows said as she prepared for her first race of the summer, in the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai today. "I do feel sorry for the people who have lost out in the past. Hayley Tullett won the 1500m bronze medal at the World Championships in Paris in 2003 and the two people who finished ahead of her have since been found guilty of doping, so Hayley was the true world champion. It's such a shame that she never had that moment. It's happened to others too.
"I like to tell myself that the people I'm competing against now are completely fine. As an athlete, you've got to tell yourself you're on a level playing field. I do think the sport's a lot cleaner than it was in the past.
"As someone who's been involved in the sport all these years – someone who's just persevered and persevered, who's had to fight so many mental and physical battles – it just really, really staggers me that people could dope."
To see Meadows at a UKA major event this summer, go to www.uka.org.uk or phone 08000 556 056 for tickets