Hylton returning to fold after year in wilderness

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Slough athlete could book his place at World Indoor Championships after clearing his name following steroid abuse charges.

Slough athlete could book his place at World Indoor Championships after clearing his name following steroid abuse charges.

If Mark Hylton'S form is anything like that of his favourite team Liverpool - and the signs are promising - he will effectively draw a line under the worst year of his life when he runs at Birmingham's national indoor arena on Sunday.

A top-two placing at the Norwich Union World Trials, which combine the AAA indoor championships, would not only earn the 24-year-old Slough athlete a 400 metres place at the World Indoor Championships in Lisbon two months hence - it would signify his return to the fold after a period in the wilderness which might have caused less robust souls to desert the sport.

Hylton's nightmare began in October 1999 with a phone call. A routine doping test conducted by UK Sport had shown up an adverse finding for the banned steroid nandrolone.

"When I got the call I thought it was a joke," he said. But it wasn't. The indications were that his urine sample showed a nandrolone level fractionally over the permissable mark of two nanograms per millilitre.

It was not until June last year that a UK Athletics disciplinary committee decided he had no case to answer after follow-up analysis showed his nandrolone levels did not exceed the legal maximum. The case, in the words of the committee chairman, "should never have been brought". Hylton recalled: "When the charges were dismissed, my first reaction was one of relief. I don't think the anger kicked in until a couple of days afterwards. But then I thought to myself: 'This is my livelihood that has been affected. The person doing the tests doesn't seem to have realised that'."

While his battle against the charge of nandrolone abuse - unlike that of his elder training partner Mark Richardson - had left him free to run, his physical and mental state by the time the charges were dropped meant his year had already been wrecked. His shoe sponsors had dropped away, his Lottery money had been cut in half and legal bills of around £30,000 meant he had to start working four days a week at a call centre near Heathrow Airport - a job he sees himself doing for a good while yet.

On top of that, his name had been blackened by rumour. "There were some people in the sport - coaches and athletes - who were chatting crap about me," he said. "They were hearing things and adding bits on to it, making their own stories up. They didn't know the facts."

And by the time the facts came out, the stress of the situation had triggered a viral infection which ruled him out of the Olympic trials and eventually required him to have his tonsils removed.

"I have got some people looking at compensation, but at the moment that's looking pretty unlikely because no one wants to own up," he said.

His manager, Mike Whittingham, who has also found himself fighting Richardson's cause in the same arena, has been left seething over Hylton's predicament. "It's a huge injustice," he said. "Mark is in debt, but UK Sport has washed its hands of the matter, and UK Athletics has also denied responsibility. It goes round in a circle, and the only way we can seek redress would be through a hugely costly court action.

"There should be a pot of money available to athletes who find themselves in Mark's position, a sporting version of Legal Aid. It is irresponsible of the sport not to recognise that."

Until the nightmarish events set in motion by that errant result, Hylton's career had been on a steadily rising curve. While Richardson contested the top British 400m spot with Iwan Thomas in the wake of Roger Black's retirement, Hylton established himself in the next rank. Double European junior champion in 1995 and European under-23 champion two years later, he had also earned Olympic and world silver medals after running in heats of the 400m relay, and was in the quartet which won the 4x400m final at the 1998 European Championships.

Belatedly, Hylton is back to do justice to his talent. "I am very glad that I can run again, and I have put the whole episode behind me," he said.

"When I went back into training, the others were saying I looked different.

"I am a man on a mission now. I watched the trials and the Olympics last year and I never want to be in that position again. I nearly had my sport taken away from me through no fault of my own. Now that I have a second chance, I am training really hard. I might as well do it properly. So this weekend is very important for me."

If omens are anything to go by, Liverpool's 5-0 win over Crystal Palace in Wednesday night's Worthington Cup semi-final, which Hylton watched on television, could hardly be a happier one...