Modahl the ghost buster

The run of bad luck seems over for Britain's 800m runner.
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The Independent Online
DIANE MODAHL had to go, though she seemed willing to talk all night. She was wanted for dope testing, another little ordeal in a week of personal catharsis. Whether the demons were banished forever last night in Kuala Lumpur, only Modahl and her faithful husband-coach Vicente know. But a bronze medal was at least something to put on the credit side of the desperately lopsided inventory of her recent life.

"This is the end of a chapter," she said after finishing third in the 800 metres behind Maria Mutola and Argentina Paulino, both of Mozambique, a country only welcomed into the Commonwealth three years ago. "It almost ended in a fairytale, but not quite." That Mozambique, a country of minimal athletic achievement, should at present boast two of the best 800m runners in the world seemed to epitomise Modahl's wretched run of luck. But she has known worse, a lot worse.

At the age of 32, Modahl ran the second quickest race of her career, but only for a second as she came off the final bend on the shoulders of the two favourites did she threaten to regain the title she won in 1990. "I missed a year of really hard competitive racing, the sort that Mutola has had," she explained. "That's what I lost." Nor did it help that her first choice pair of spikes had been stolen from her room the night before the semi-final.

For Modahl, the colour of the metal was insignificant. Rarely has so much been invested in a bronze. For the past four years, since she was forced to slip away from the Commonwealth Games branded a cheat, Modahl's life has been consumed by the fight to clear her name. A four-year ban imposed by the British Athletics Federation for a positive test at a meeting in Portugal was overturned by the International Amateur Athletic Federation on appeal within six months; a multi-million pound claim for compensation against the BAF is still outstanding.

Somewhere in all the mess, Modahl's long-standing love affair with running turned sour. Her spikes hung in the hall, her medals stayed on the wall and for long periods her emotions hovered on the edge of sanity. Vicente recalls the day he found his wife brandishing a two-foot long Norwegian hunting knife. Only the birth of a daughter, Imani (the name is Swahili for "hope"), brought a flicker of light to the underworld.

Reflecting on the lows has been a natural process in Kuala Lumpur, as each pinprick has unleashed a flood of memories. "Everyone in the village was nodding and winking. Just people saying 'good luck, we're right behind you', things like that have brought it all back," she said. Sitting in contemplation in the final moments before the race, four years to the day after her expulsion, Modahl could not have helped but rewind the video. Back to the day she put her own voice on the home answerphone once more after 18 months of silence or the wet and windy Valentine's Day in the unlikely setting of the Baseball Ground in Derby, when she began competing again and won a county cross-country race. The day they had to sell their house to pay the lawyers' bills.

"I tried to put all those thoughts to the back of my mind, but during the warm-up they all just kept coming back, right back to the day they told me I couldn't defend my title. I mean, I remember the first time I competed again for Sale Harriers at a meeting in Edinburgh. I didn't want to be there," she said.

But it was a matter of unfinished business as she returned to the podium at these Games. The broad smile and the waves to each corner of the Bukit Jalil stadium showed the significance of that step up for the medal ceremony. "I wanted to win more than any other girl in the race, that was what made me so confident," she said.

Despite the understandable tangle of thoughts, Modahl's racing brain remained sharp enough. Though outrun for the first lap as Mutola set a blistering pace at the front, Modahl patiently found her rhythm and moved up down the back straight, cutting down those who had been drawn into matching strides. Only in the final 60 metres did the lack of recent work begin to tell and, by then, the Mozambique pair were enjoying their own private duel to the line. It was still Modahl's fastest time for nearly six years, a measurement of rehabilitation and a suitable cause for celebration. "It's our sixth wedding anniversary today and we're going to go out partying," Modahl said. "There's been no reason to celebrate recently."