Sacked Verroken vows to carry on fighting

Former leader of Britain's campaign still mystified by her departure as she looks for a fresh role

Alan Hubbard
Sunday 06 June 2004 00:00 BST

Michele Verroken's husband, Tony, gave her a consolation present soon after she was summarily told by UK Sport that her services were no longer required just 10 days before Christmas - a subscription to Homes and Gardens. "He has a wicked sense of humour," smiles Verroken.

Michele Verroken's husband, Tony, gave her a consolation present soon after she was summarily told by UK Sport that her services were no longer required just 10 days before Christmas - a subscription to Homes and Gardens. "He has a wicked sense of humour," smiles Verroken.

For the only official announcement about her shock departure as director of the anti-doping programme from the body she served for 18 years was that she was "on gardening leave". She still is, until 15 July, when she gets her P45, her payoff and starts looking for fresh employment.

Not that, as she admits, the garden of her Hertfordshire home is likely to be featured in the magazine. "The grass needs cutting again," she sighs, gazing at the lawn where she and her two kids play what she calls "one-day cricket internationals". She has been dealing with another sort of bouncer by opening the batting for Hemel Hempstead Town women's X1, sometimes even guesting with the men's team. She is practised in keeping a straight bat against hostile bowling.

Why she was fired remains a mystery. It is almost six months since she was called into the office of Sue Campbell, freshly installed as interim chairperson of the government-funded quango, and told: "I believe the time has come for us to part company." No reason has been given, either to her, her solicitor, the media, or even Parliament, where questions have been raised by shadow sports spokesman Lord Moynihan, who first hired her when he was sports minister. It wasn't even mentioned in UK Sport's website-posted weekly news-letter. The exit of the chief executive, Richard Callicott, another early victim of the Campbell cleaver, remains equally unexplained.

Hers is up there with Claudio Ranieri's as one of the strangest sackings in sport, and the undignified manner of her dismissal reflects as badly on UK Sport as the Tinkerman's has on Chelsea.

Speculation has ranged from wrongdoing, which she resolutely denies, to jealousy within the organisation because of the high profile she enjoyed. But the truth is that Verroken, 49, more than anyone else at UK Sport, was responsible for raising the profile of an organisation which otherwise would draw glazed eyes from the majority of the public if asked what they are and what they do.

Clearly UK Sport weren't big enough for her and Sue Campbell once the sport minister's hired gun rode into town. We know that Richard Caborn endorsed her removal, though he denies he instigated it. But it's a rum business, especially as only a few weeks before the World Anti-Doping Agency journal had praised her work.

"I'm still absolutely baffled," she says. "To be perfectly honest when I was given the news I didn't bother to question it because I was in shock. I know Sue very well from our netballing days, and if she's made up her mind there's no point in arguing. If I had done something wrong there would have been a disciplinary process, but they obviously wanted to avoid that. Why? It's like having a death but no body. There's been no opportunity for a grieving process."

By a quirky coincidence her dismissal came soon after it was learned that Rio Ferdinand had missed a scheduled UK Sport drugs test. Manchester United were furious at the leak of his lack of a leak. It certainly did not come from Verroken, as all media sources will testify, but did the football lobby do for her as it did for Kate Hoey? She recalls how her 14-year-old son Nicholas was collared by schoolmates who gleefully told him: "Rio Ferdinand got your mum the sack".

So did someone put the football boot in? "Gosh, I hope not. There was no connection between me and Ferdinand's name coming into the public domain. Anyway, I always had a good relationship with football and always praised the FA's education programme and social drugs policy. But I am realistic enough to see they had real difficulty in accepting parts of the new anti-doping code, which were about accountability. Now Fifa have signed up to it and I'd like to think the FA and I might have some opportunity to work together again in the future."

So what does that future hold? "There's no point in sitting around feeling bitter. I think it is academic why I am no longer there. It doesn't really matter to me any more. But I don't intend to be idle, I can't afford to retire, and anyway, who would want to? I'm going to get on with something, but I want it to be something that is connected with sport, because I still feel such a passion for getting the anti-drugs programme right."

There is no one else in the world with her experience of anti-doping except perhaps the IOC's own expert, Prof Arne Ljungqvist. Verroken has been involved in the anti-doping procedures for every major sports event held in this country in recent years, and would be a useful acquisition in an advisory capacity to the London bid, as Seb Coe, himself an ardent anti-drugs campaigner, will have noted. A role with Wada is a possibility, and her experience would also be of value on disciplinary and arbitration panels.

Significantly, even after her departure from UK Sport, Verroken was asked to give evidence before the parliamentary select committee inquiring into drugs in sport, where it was put to her that she might have lost her £55,000-a-year job because she was too good at it, and that her hardline stance might damage the London bid if too many positive tests were revealed before the Olympics. She replied enigmatically: "I am in the situation I am today because my integrity is not negotiable."

She now adds, equally enigmatically: "There is a always a controversial lead-up to a Games, and I will be interested to see if there are any findings brought into the public domain before the team go to Athens."

If she ever does decide to start digging the garden, at least she will know where all the bodies are buried.

Fears for White's safety as the Balco shadows lengthen

Montgomery the latest big name to be caught in athletics' tangled web. Simon Turnbull reports

The track-and-field build-up to the Olympics gathers momentum this week with the start of the International Association of Athletics Federations' Golden League season in Bergen on Friday. The opening meeting has been moved from Oslo because the Bislett Stadium is being rebuilt. The absence of Kelli White from the field for the women's 100m will be confirmation that the sport itself is undergoing vital reconstruction.

The American sprinter, winner of the 100m and 200m at the World Championships in Paris last August, was due to open her 2004 season on the European circuit by contesting the short sprint in Bergen. When Friday night comes, though, White will be at home in Union City, California, on standby for police protection as she prepares to give evidence in cases involving the alleged distribution of performance-enhancing drugs by Balco Laboratories and their owner, Victor Conte. There have been fears for her safety since her decision, two weeks ago, to accept a two-year ban from the United States Anti-Doping Agency and to act as a witness in the state case against Conte and three associates and also in the USADA's investigation into other athletes implicated by Balco documents.

White became the first athlete to be penalised for giving a "non-analytical positive" on the strength of documentary evidence that she had taken a range of prohibited substances - a pharmaceutical full-set: a steroid (tetrahydrogestrinone), a blood-booster (erythropoietin) and a stimulant (modafinil). The USADA are looking to take action against athletes who are listed on Balco's books and, with the reputation of high-profile figures at stake, police protection has been offered to White.

"There has been no direct threat, but Kelli has been under a lot of pressure," her attorney, Jerrold D Colton, said. "The offer of protection has been made. The US Attorney's Office has informed us they consider this a very serious matter and will respond immediately if her safety is threatened or compromised in any way."

It was all very different in Paris last August, when White assumed the mantle of the world's fastest woman with her emphatic victories in the 100m and 200m at the World Championships. Even when it emerged that she had tested positive for modafinil - at the time, not a banned substance - she looked members of the press in the eye at a hastily convened conference and assured them she was no cheat. "The mere fact of this allegation is personally harmful and hurtful," she said. "I have never taken any substance to enhance my performance."

The Balco files confirmed otherwise, and similar documentation is threatening to undermine the world's fastest man, the 100m world record-holder Tim Montgomery, and the fastest woman of the past 16 years, Montgomery's partner Marion Jones. On Wednesday, USADA officials met with Montgomery's attorney, Cristina Arguedas, to discuss the implications of documents from the Balco criminal investigation which they claim link the sprinter to the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs.

The meeting followed a report in The San Jose Mercury that Montgomery had been part of a plan - referred to in Balco documents as "Project World Record" - involving Conte and Charlie Francis, the former coach of Ben Johnson, to make him the world's fastest man with the use of the as-then undetectable tetrahydrogestrinone, commonly known as THG.

Arguedas said later: "I didn't see anything that looked like it could disqualify someone from the Olympics." Montgomery's Olympic preparations are hardly running smoothly, though. Six weeks before the US team trials, he has split with his coach, Dan Pfaff, and linked up with his former college coach, Steve Riddick. More damagingly, both Montgomery and Jones, who will continue to work under Pfaff, have been barred from competing in Bergen on Friday night.

Jones is due to race at the Golden Spike meeting in Ostrava on Tuesday and she has two British meetings on her summer schedule: the Norwich Union British Grand Prix at Gateshead on 27 June and the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace on 30 July. A spokesman for Fast Track, the organisers of Britain's televised track-and-field meetings, said: "Our position is straightforward. Athletes are innocent until proven otherwise."

Jones and her lawyer, Joseph Burton, met with USADA officials last week to consider evidence against her. They have vowed to fight any case that might be brought against her. The anti-doping agency want to complete their investigations before the US Olympic trials begin on 9 July, and the IAAF are anxious to avoid any legal appeals casting a shadow over the Olympics. Significantly, last Tuesday the governing body of track and field sent a lawyer, Huw Roberts, to Colorado Springs to be briefed on potential cases by USADA officials.

The IAAF have already suffered the embarrassment of having to hand White's 200m world title to the Russian sprinter Anastasiya Kapachinskaya, who has received a two-year ban for testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest in March but who is exempt from retrospective punishment. Where once upon a time the world wondered exactly who was the fastest women on the planet, the growing question is: who cares?

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