Modahl emerges into the light

Mike Rowbottom talks to Vicente Modahl, vindicated in his struggle to clear his wife's name
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The Independent Online
Good news, just like bad, takes some getting used to. A week after hearing that the doping case against his wife Diane had been dropped, Vicente Modahl's first waking thoughts still turn towards the campaign to clear her name which has dominated his life for the past 20 months. Then he remembers...

"Proving Diane's innocence was my driving force," he said. "All the time I was fighting the case I was planning and chasing information and looking for new angles. I was doing that between six and 12 hours a day - you get so hooked, it is almost like a drug. I think it will take another couple of weeks to realise it is over and that I don't need to do any more."

Modahl is still involved in a High Court action against the British Athletic Federation to recoup the pounds 500,000 Diane has spent on presenting her case. There have been huge legal and scientific costs involved in her original hearing in December 1994, when she received a four-year-ban, and the successful appeal last September, which was belatedly endorsed by the International Amateur Athletic Federation last Monday.

For her husband, however, the pursuit of compensation is less personally taxing. "There's not so much I can do," he said. "It's now about the facts of the case being presented in the right order." Which leaves him with what he describes as the "very luxurious problem" of how to fill in those six to 12 hours a day.

Shortly after hearing of the IAAF's decision via a morning phone call to the Albuquerque apartment which is currently their training base, the Modahls went out for a run together in the park which lay outside their window.

It must have been tempting to them to recall the other runs they had attempted back home in Sale, when - in the depths of their mutual misery - Diane would simply pack up and return home. Or, more disturbingly, sprint like a mad thing until her lungs burned. This was a different kind of run. "We felt so relieved," Vicente said. "It was as if a big burden had been lifted from our hearts."

It is only now that the worst of the ordeal is over that Vicente Modahl is beginning to wonder how he came through. From the moment when he greeted his traumatised wife with a bunch of roses after she had been sent back from the 1994 Commonwealth Games, he has been what she describes as her pillar of support.

When she despaired, he comforted. When the rumours flew, he persevered. When she contemplated harming herself - once with a knife, once with sleeping tablets - he intervened.

"I think I've always been a very determined and strong person," he said. When he was a young boy, one of a family of nine children growing up in the Norwegian city of Bergen, he would sometimes become involved in fights with bigger, older lads. "When they twisted my arm," he recalled, "I would just look them in the eyes and very calmly smile. They would think: `Something is wrong with this person. He doesn't feel pain.' And they would panic.

"Once, when I was 13, my arm was twisted so badly it was out of position, and I really thought it was broken. But I just had to let them know, `If you want to break my arm, that's fine. You can take the consequences.' "

The same pattern of behaviour has characterised his dealings with what his wife described this week as the "powerful organisations in control of athletics who can make you or break you".

He recalls frequent occasions in the past two years when, in meetings or telephone conversations with officials, he would refuse to give any outward sign of emotional turmoil. "Afterwards I would walk into a room and the tears would just flow," he said. "I'm an extremely soft person. But there is something incredibly strong inside me which says never to give in to injustice."

It was that inner strength which enabled him to develop a career managing and coaching athletes after his own promising career - he was Norwegian junior champion at cross-country and a good standard steeplechaser - was ended when his knee was smashed by a group of drug addicts who attacked him in an Oslo park.

Coming to this country in 1992 after an acrimonious split with his first main athlete, Said Aouita, he encountered widespread resentment within British athletic circles as he established a group which included leading talents such as Steve Smith, the British high jump record holder, David Grindley, the British 400m record holder, and Curtis Robb, an 800m finalist in the 1992 Olympics.

Even Modahl found it hard to carry on in the dark days following the first BAF hearing, when the panel of five voted unanimously to ban his wife following the announcement that her urine sample after a race in Lisbon in June 1994 contained a massive level of the male hormone, testosterone.

The day after that decision, three Portuguese athletes, including the current European cross-country champion, Paolo Guerra, left Modahl's management group. And in February 1995, his plans to repeat the successful high-jumping- to-music competition he had staged the previous year in Liverpool fell through when he lost pounds 40,000 worth of sponsorship.

"The sponsors left without any explanation," he said. "But I knew the real reason. I came close to a collapse at that time. I had been so strong for so long, but I felt something happening to my body. I started to breathe heavily and I couldn't walk upstairs without feeling really exhausted. I started to feel pains in my heart. Diane calmed me down, and I decided I had to try not to put so much emotion into everything I did."

For all that, anger has been a major motivational factor in his campaign. He wrote a list of those people whom he considered to have acted reprehensibly in his wife's case, people such as the IAAF president, Primo Nebiolo, and the BAF executive chairman, Peter Radford. "I would look at their names and I would say: `No way are you going to get away with what you did.' I would decide that each person on my list should become fully aware of their wrongdoing. Today we have achieved our aim. Now they are suffering."

The anger still smoulders, too, when he recalls the rumours which began to circulate among other athletes and coaches following the announcement of the ban. "There was a strong campaign involving some of Diane's opponents and some BAF officials, including a couple of coaches," he said. "They were saying they knew Diane was on drugs, especially when she had got involved with me. Some of the athletes started to justify their own results against her by saying that she was not a clean athlete. I know that when Diane competes in the Olympic trials, some of the athletes who said she was always on drugs will be on the line with her. I won't mention names. They will have to live with it."

He recalled with particular chagrin a function soon after the 1994 Commonwealth Games at which he heard that two MPs from the North-west had expressed regrets that Diane Modahl had met him. "I was being spoken of as one of the top four drug dealers in sport in the North-west," he said. "It was terrible to hear these things. People were saying `Poor Diane. She didn't even know he was giving her drugs.' I was an easy target."

What gave him particular comfort at that time was the decision by athletes such as Smith, Grindley and Guy Bullock to stay with him. "They stood up and showed their support," he said. "That meant an awful lot to Diane and myself."

When the Modahls realised they were going to have to put their semi-detached home in Sale on the market to help clear their debts, Grindley, who has not raced at a major level since 1994 because of injury, offered to buy them a terraced house. In the event, they turned the offer down and plan to move into two rooms in Diane's parents' home in the Moss Side district of Manchester.

The arrival of their daughter Imani - Swahili for "hope" - in October of last year provided strong circumstantial evidence of Diane Modahl's innocence. She had, after all, conceived a child only six months after a test found that her level of testosterone was four times that which resulted in Ben Johnson receiving a life ban.

"Imani was born because we always wanted a family," Vicente said. "But she also provided us with a distraction in our everyday lives, and that was something we desperately needed."

Vicente does the night shift with his daughter in order to let his wife get sufficient sleep to train properly. "She always smiles," he said. "It is just so delightful to have that kind of influence on us. Smiles are something we have not been used to in the last two years."

The Modahls celebrated last week's verdict with a champagne dinner, accompanied by Grindley, Bullock and other members of their training group. At the end of the evening, a cake was produced for Diane on behalf of her fellow athletes bearing three words: Keep On Running.

"Diane is enjoying being part of the athletics family again," Vicente said. "You can already see the change in her when she trains. But what we have gone through hasn't disappeared. It will always be there."