Verdict that failed to dispel the doubts

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Guilty "beyond reasonable doubt"? Not the most obvious conclusion to the Diane Modahl drugs case. Doubt was the one thing everyone seemed to agree on. Doubt about the condition of the sample when it was analysed, doubt about Modahl's medical condi tion, doubt about her susceptibility to cheating. So why not doubt about the credibility of a committee of inquiry that may have failed to address some of the most relevant questions?

Having elected not to place too much weight on the suggestion that Modahl could have produced an extraordinarily high level of testosterone because of some medical condition, her lawyers relied almost entirely on condemnation of the Portuguese laboratorywhere the specimen was tested. Even if the committee members had a mind to accept some medical explanation, both sides knew that the argument would have to be fully documented and supported by medical experts if it was to be accepted by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

In all the hours of evidence and throughout the media hype, a fundamental question seems to have been underplayed. If she was taking a steroid concoction, for what reason? On the face of it a naive question. She was allegedly full of the stuff in June. In fact, the count was so high that most experts including Dr David Cowans, head of the Sports Council's Doping Control unit, feel such a sample would indicate a sudden rather than a prolonged consumption of drugs. Why? She was "caught" at what was an early-season training event. There were no medals at stake and little money. If by then she was on a long programme of drug-taking, the tests she took earlier in the year would have found her out. The idea that athletes can mask their drug- taking by using other substances is one that Cowans says is overblown and unproven.

The high point of Modahl's season would have been the Commonwealth Games, but much as she undoubtedly wanted to win the 800 metres, she had won the gold medal four years before. At 28, she knew that she had one last chance of an Olympic medal but the next Games is not until 1996. Bearing in mind the increased number of random tests in Britain, the chances of her remaining on a long-term programme and not being caught were remote.

The fact that people at the grass roots of athletics desperately wanted Modahl to be found innocent must have made the work of the committee all the more difficult. But a combination of that, plus her athletics performances and alterations in the paperwork provided by the Portuguese authorities was surely sufficient to spread a shadow of doubt.

That doubt should have been extended by a look at Modahl's performance figures for the season, which showed no remarkable improvement. Her personal best time for 800m at the beginning of the Commonwealth Games was 1min 58.65sec, set in 1990, and her besttime for the season a fairly modest 1min 59.85sec. Although she took a slightly surprising fourth place in the world championships last year, the byword in her career has been consistency. People who take drugs normally go for something more than that.

The huge danger to athletics in Britain is that the public at large will not congratulate the authorities on their pursuit of cheats but see the still problematic Modahl case as another example of a corrupt sport. Of nearly 3,000 drugs tests carried out on British athletes since 1991, only 12 have been positive. The BAF may now believe they have eliminated one more drug cheat, but the doubt remains.

In spite of the federation's evidence that several of Britain's top athletes have had numerous drugs tests and always proved negative, the fact is that Liz McColgan did not suffer a slip of the tongue when she told me earlier this year that she knew of "a lot more people on the British team who are doing it" (not "a few" athletes overall as she was later persuaded to say). Right or wrong, if someone as involved in the sport at top level has that opinion, British athletics must have more skeletons in cupboards. But closing the door on the doubt that surrounds the Modahl case will not make athletics cleaner overnight.