Interview- Michelle Verroken: Passion of the ethics girl

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The Independent Online

MICHELLE VERROKEN should have known. Several weeks before the news of Linford Christie's positive drugs test, rumours of a major finding had been circulating in the labs. But the story was bound to break just as the director of UK Sport's anti- doping and ethics unit was taking a well-earned summer break.

MICHELLE VERROKEN should have known. Several weeks before the news of Linford Christie's positive drugs test, rumours of a major finding had been circulating in the labs. But the story was bound to break just as the director of UK Sport's anti- doping and ethics unit was taking a well-earned summer break.

If Verroken had followed the lead given by the head of the UCI, the international governing body of cycling, during last year's Tour, she would have shut the curtains, locked the door and ripped out all the telephones.

Or booked a package holiday to Gozo. But that has never been Verroken's style. No one who has taught biology in the East End of London and enjoyed every minute of the challenge is going to shirk the fall-out from a high- profile case more Agatha than Linford Christie.

When world-class athletics returned to Crystal Palace a week ago Verroken was a visible presence in the dope control unit staffed by her sampling officers, while a succession of athletes sat in the press conference room and voiced their lack of faith in the drug-testing system. Verroken was not surprised by their reaction, just disappointed that they chose to criticise so volubly without any consultation. Criticism, she says, is 10 to the penny; constructive, imaginative, solutions like nuggets in the desert.

"If they don't feel confident, they should tell us why," she says. "I still don't hear any athletes saying they want to do away with the whole system and let the drug-takers run free. The system is meant to protect the athletes and if it isn't giving them confidence then it isn't protecting them. It's also disappointing that they generalise because we're working hard not only to keep things right in this country, but to get other countries to work with us." Harmonisation, of procedure, of thought and justice, is a rumbling theme with Verroken, though much of a week spent on one or other of her telephones has tested the concord in the more immediate vicinity of her family.

There was something touchingly homely about Britain's drugs supremo, chief drugs-buster or drugs tsar, to name a few of the media sobriquets, the woman personally responsible for organising more than 5,000 tests each year, standing in her neat kitchen mashing tuna and baked potato for the evening meal. And in that the arrival of her young daughter amid the deceptive chaos of her study should require the temporary shifting of the file on Ben Johnson's appeal for reinstatement. You expect inscrutability, defensiveness, a bureaucrat's deadpan face, a lab coat at the very least from the person whose signature at the bottom of an official letter confirms an athlete's worst nightmare. What you get with Verroken is laughter, irreverence, openness and a palpable and critical sense of humanity. Even athletes guilty of doping offences are human beings, as she points out.

Yet there is no doubting the passion with which Verroken tackles her job nor the respect which her honesty and courage has fostered in the least promising of territories. When Diane Modahl was whisked away from the Commonwealth Games in Victoria back to headlines of "Cheat", Verroken had the delicate task of visiting the Modahl household to conduct another test.

She remembers the day vividly, sitting down to explain the procedures and the gratitude of the Modahls that someone official might actually be sympathetic to their plight. Even now, some hard and bitter years later, she hopes her relationship with the family has stayed intact. The five- month delay in releasing the results of the Christie test runs counter to all her instincts for digging out the truth.

"Five months? That's a real problem because people will question why it took so long to come into the public domain and why we didn't test him positive. When a high-profile athlete is tested positive, everything is subject to question. We have to ask ourselves whether, if a national athlete tests positive outside the UK, we should have heard about it. In my view if you have a finding, the best thing to do is to get on with investigating it."

Too many athletes still regard drug-testing as an elaborate game, she says. Yet they, not the authorities, are in control. "We say to them before they go to a major event, look at the issues: look at how the sample is sealed, have you been guaranteed a unique number, have you been given a copy of the documentation, are you happy that what they've written down is what you've got written down. Do you know what lab it's going to, do you know how long the analysis will take and who's going to get the results. They should pay attention, take it seriously." Christie was not alone in his prickly response to the unscheduled arrival of Verroken's troop of samplers.

Inconsistency of interpretation and sentence is one of the chief sources of frustration for Verroken. She trots out a well-used example: if a team of four representing Great Britain at the Olympic Games, one each from Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland all tested positive, they would all be subject to different treatment by their federations. Only by establishing a definitive test and a consistent framework of response will the twin demands of the athletes and the law be addressed.

Verroken welcomed the call by the new sports minister, Kate Hoey, last week for a thorough review of anti-doping arrangements throughout the UK. Far from viewing it as an implicit criticism of her work a bit of government muscle, she hopes, might shoulder some of the more antiquated federations - cricket, for example - into accepting her department's rigorous procedures. "Twice in the fairly recent past I've sat in meetings while federations have seriously debated whether they could ignore some findings," she says. While a rower can be banned for life and a cyclist for six months for the same offence, the system's credibility will always be subject to question.

Yet Verroken can claim much of the credit for establishing a drug- testing regime which is widely deemed the model of efficiency. It seems a far cry from the day a redundant lecturer and qualified netball coach answered an advertisement for a development officer at the old GB Sports Council. Sports medicine and anti-doping was part of the job description, which coincided with Verroken's own growing fascination with sport's value systems.

At the time, the national drug- testing programme was poorly funded and patchily administered. The establishment of an independent anti-doping unit, prompted by the then sports minister, Colin Moynihan, was the first significant sign of government support. Verroken was chosen as its head, prompting immediate and lingering suspicion from the federations who sensed an invasion of their privacy. Even now, 13 years on, a mysterious shortage of invitations to major events in some sports makes her question the odd attitude.

But there are glimpses of optimism amid the gloom five days before the start of the World Championships in Seville. Australia's cohesive and rigorous anti-doping policy promises to make the 2000 Games potentially the cleanest in history. Athletes could be tested the moment they set foot on Australian soil. DNA profiling puts another weapon into the testers' hands. Verroken is far too aware of human frailty, her own not least, to occupy the moral high ground, but an intrinsic sense of right and wrong provides useful protection against the prevailing cynicism of modern sport. Her first reaction to a positive test is not pleasure, but curiosity.

"I talked to Mark Tout, the bobsleigher who was tested positive, and got him to speak at one of our conferences. He said, 'I didn't think I would ever be tested, I thought I would get away with it'. But he also talked about the pressures of being an athlete, of having to recover from injury and the fact that it was going to be his last Games.

"Now, he might look back and say he should have argued his case because he might have got away with it, and that's very, very worrying. 'Deny, deny, deny', as one of the Canadian athletes told an enquiry. In the end the athletes themselves start to believe the lie.

They manage to look at themselves in the mirror with their gold medal around their necks and say 'I did this'. Hang on a minute, no you didn't, you were never good enough, so you turned to drugs. Be honest with yourself, that's what athletes should be saying to themselves, and that's what we should be saying to them because it's the athletes who can bust this."