The rage for justice, profile-Diane Modahl

Click to follow
DIANE MODAHL says she is innocent. Her husband, Vicente, who is also her manager, says she is innocent. Of course they do, but so do Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell, Phylis Smith, Paula Thomas and just about every athlete who has ever known her pe rsonally or by reputation. Friends are comforting, but in the coming week, unless she can come up with some irrefutable evidence why earlier this year a drugs test should have revealed more of the body-building substance testosterone in her system than w as found in that of the disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, not only will she be banned from athletics but athletics in Britain will suffer an incalculable blow.

Other British athletes have failed dope tests - though never before a British woman - but none has raised such incredulous, hurt disbelief as this 28-year-old 1990 Commonwealth Games 800m gold medal winner and Olympic finalist who, at her local club, Sale Harriers, has always been looked upon as someone with a gift for working with kids and holding a deep personal resentment against athletes she knew cheated by taking drugs. Even when she reached international status she never seemed to be hard or devious enough to let anyone forget that as a teenager she went by the nickname "Miss Prim".

Unless she was a remarkably good actress, her reaction on hearing the long-delayed outcome of an analysis of her urine, taken after a minor athletics meeting in Portugal and examined in that country, was that of traumatic disbelief. She was in Victoria, British Columbia, for the Commonwealth Games and was about to defend her title. Susan Deaves, the English women's team manager, had the job of telling her. Deaves recalls that the favourite for the 800m collapsed to the floor, eyes rolling then wide openand showing all the signs of someone in deep shock, or worse. "I thought, my God she could be dead."

Much as the British Athletic Federation tried to get Modahl back to England without too much publicity, her arrival by a side door at Heathrow only heightened theperception that this was a sport desperately trying to hide its guilty secrets. The word wasout and soon swept through her home city of Manchester where she was born, was educated and had been a Sale Harrier since the age of 10.

In the early and not altogether stopwatch shattering years, long before she was married, Diane Edwards became known to everyone, friends, fellow athletes and journalists as one of the sport's most friendly, warm and open people.Anyone less likely to havea part in the dirty world of the drug dealers would have been hard to imagine.

She was brought up in a large but close family on a council estate. There were four brothers and two sisters, both of whom initially showed more natural talent for athletics. But when she found her distance, which unusually for a black girl in Britain was not a sprint, she soon showed promise without looking exceptional.

Her sisters were both sprinters, and at first her family were not particularly enthusiastic about her desire to become a top-class athlete in the physically gruelling 800m. But all of the children were ambitious, one boxing-loving brother has twice reached ABA finals and one of her sisters is carving a career in pop music. Unlike her distant cousin the boxer Chris Eubank, she never showed any desire to cultivate an artificial image, although in recent years she has worked on her diction with a view to afuture in the media (she has only just resumed her BA Honours degree course in media studies at Manchester University after a long period in which the strain of the drugs accusation left her in isolation).

Some people with no knowledge or evidence have been prepared to write anonymously to her and her husband condemning them without trial. Often she has had to fall back on her religious faith. Although she was married in a Catholic church, she is not herself a Catholic but is a regular churchgoer. Asked whether he could believe she had ever taken drugs, the Rev Kevin McGarahan, who has known her since she was at school, replied: "Not for the life of me".

Her marriage two years ago to Vicente, who was already an athletes' manager, or representative as they now prefer to be called, obviously made her more aware of her potential as a professional, valuable athlete. Vicente comes from Norway and was a modestachiever in athletics himself. For a time he also acted as assistant director of the Bislett Games, in Oslo, one of the biggest money-spinning events on the circuit. He later became an athletes agent with one main client, the Moroccan Said Aouita, who apparently found it difficult to accept the situation when Modahl married Diane Edwards.

Vicente's marriage to a leading British athlete obviously gave him more opportunities to increase his list of clients. He had never threatened the power of the promoter and leading agent Andy Norman neither does he threaten today's fastest growing company run by Linford Christie and Colin Jackson. Nevertheless, his clientele now includes several leading internationals including Steve Smith, David Grindley, Kevin McKay and, of course, Diane whom he also coaches.

Few would question the logic and practicality of a husband being his wife's athletics representative but a lot of people within the sport doubt that a husband-coach-athlete relationship can really work. However, until her career was so painfully interupted, there was no evidence that Diane's move away from her previous coach, Norman Poole, had any damaging effect on her track achievements.

Throughout the weeks of his wife's ordeal, Vicente has fended off all manner of accusations, not least that unbeknown to her he had been feeding her with drugs. He was convinced that other agents in the sport were taking advantage of the bad publicity that immediately followed the positive drugs test and were trying to discredit him. Vicente points out that anyone taking large quantities of muscle-building drugs is unlikely to remain at 8st 9lb, show no sudden dramatic increase in performance and have acomparatively fleshy body lacking in the enhanced muscle definition that can come with the use of steroids.

Since the news broke in August, Vicente has slowly led his wife back to something approaching the normality of her life before the Commonwealth Games. But he still acts as spokesman, legal adviser and the only person who goes training with her. He says the training helps relieve the sense of frustration and aggression they both feel.

Social events have been rare, although last month she was persuaded to go to a Sale Harriers awards ceremony and receive two awards, one on behalf of the club for winning the First Division of the British league and a personal one for competing in the European Championships and Commonwealth Games. The second award was, as the club's team manager, Eric Hughes, explained "to show that we still believed in her". Even so, during the evening she was often on the verge of tears and at one point she had to be talked into going back into the room.

Hughes has stood by Modahl from the day he first heard the acccusation. "I know her. I know how careful she is with her life. She isn't the sort of person who would cheat." Come what may, the club, too, will stand by an athlete who often made overnight journeys back from international events abroad in order to turn out for them in comparatively minor league matches. But Hughes is only one of dozens of people close to Diane Modahl who are convinced of her innocence. Her close friend Paula Thomas says: "It wasn't just me who was devastated when we heard the news. Nobody in the Commonwealth Games team could believe it. We still can't."

The Modahls sense that the International Amateur Athletic Federation are determined to defend their own drug-testing procedures by ensuring that Diane is banned for four years. But exactly what evidence the Modahls will offer at the inquiry in London this week is something that as yet they have kept to themselves. An educated guess is that their lawyers will bring medical evidence to show that a specimen can change in character over the sort of time span it was allowed to remain in a Lisbon laboratory, especially if it is left in high temperatures.

However, that may not be enough to force the international federation to admit that their campaign against drugs, which has trapped a large number of cheats, can also ensnare the innocent.