Diane Modahl on drug cheats, I’m a celebrity and living in Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 October 2015
Barely a week goes by without a story of a drugs cheat in sport. But what about the innocent athlete unjustly accused? Diane Modahl, from Sale, speaks of her time in the eye of the storm. Words by Howard Bradbury
At the age of 15, Diane Edwards, as she was then, entered a beauty contest in her home district of Longsight, Manchester.
‘We were all parading around like you do, and the question came: “What do you want to do when you grow up?”,’ Diane recalls. ‘I said: “I want to go to the Olympic Games”. And I’ll never forget the response I got. Everybody burst out laughing.’
The daughter of hard-working parents who came to Britain from Jamaica in the 1950s - dad a labourer, mum a nurse - Diane had, by that time, already been running seriously for four years. She had been spotted, aged 11, at Ducie High School, Moss Side, by Alan Robertshawe, a coach from Sale Harriers.
‘What we say to young people today is that it’s OK to dream big,’ says Diane, recalling how her ambitions provoked laughter. ‘I went to four Olympic games in the end.’
This year saw the 25th anniversary of Diane winning gold in the 800m at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland. It was a highlight of a career which included six Amateur Athletic Association 800m national titles, fourth place in the 1993 World Championships and silver and bronze medals in the 1986 and 1998 Commonwealth games respectively.
But what, sadly, most remember of her career is that she was sent home from the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, then banned by the British Athletics Federation on the strength of a ‘positive’ drugs test from an earlier race in Lisbon. It was a bombshell not just for Diane, but also for her husband and coach Norwegian-born Vicente, who took up the fight to prove Diane’s innocence.
It emerged that Diane’s urine sample had been kept in a room at 35C for three days - conditions which, scientists proved, would cause any sample to yield a false positive. A year later, the BAF lifted that ban.
She returned to competition completely exonerated, but, says Vicente, the trauma meant Diane never again stepped onto a track as a ‘fully-committed’ athlete. Musing that Diane had the potential to match double Olympic gold medallist Kelly Holmes’s 800m record of 1min 56sec, Vicente says: ‘Diane lost many medals and records from this.’
Diane adds: ‘Undoubtedly, I lost something special.’
But they lost much more. Their six-year legal battle for damages from the BAF ended in failure in the House of Lords. Downsizing homes in Sale to fund their fight, the couple expended £1.5m.
‘We lost our homes. At one stage, we had £20 to live on for ten days and nowhere to get money from,’ says Vicente. ‘We lived on bread and jam. We were on the borderline of bankruptcy for six years.’
The last cheque to settle their debts was written only three years ago. Not long after, Vicente suffered a heart attack and had double by-pass surgery - a result, he is sure, of 20 years of stress.
Two decades after Diane was exonerated of doping, drugs in sport is still forever in the headlines, and Diane is frequently asked for her comments. She has spoken out in the past against the idea of lifetime bans for athletes caught doping, but recommended drugs cheats be suspended for four years and banned from the next Olympics.
‘If you had a life ban, where would that have left us?’ she says.
Vicente - still as angry today as 20 years ago - speaks gloomily about sporting authorities being ‘morally corrupt’, adding: ‘In catching the cheats, they make, at times, serious mistakes. In our case it was life-changing and devastating.’
These days, Diane runs two or three times a week. At 49, she seems as lithe as in her heyday, and Vicente confirms that she would still give good club athletes half her age a run for their money.
After retiring from competition, Diane did some TV work during the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, and appeared in I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! in 2004.
‘It was the best one ever,’ she says. ‘It was the one Johnny Rotten was on, Jennie Bond was in there, Alex Best - I got on well with her - Kerry Katona won and Jordan and Peter (André) fell in love.’
Five years ago, the Diane Modahl Sports Foundation - of which she is chief executive - was formed, to encourage youngsters into sport by offering the same kind of expertise and practical support that Alan Robertshawe gave Diane over 30 years ago.
Diane wants to help all kids fulfil their potential, but chief coach Vicente admits he hankers to find and polish another champion. He may not need to look too far from home. He and Diane have three daughters, Imani, aged 19 - already running with Sale Harriers - Gisella, aged eight, and seven-year-old Giorgia.
‘She’s the dark horse,’ Vicente says of his youngest. ‘She’s going to be about 6ft and has Diane’s muscles and Diane’s physique. If she has any talent, she’s going to be devastating.’ w
The Diane Modahl Sports Foundation - see www.dmsf.co.uk - is a registered charity working in schools to encourage young people to participate and excel in sport. Its success stories include Stockport 17-year-old Aimee Pratt, England’s top junior over 1500m and 3000m steeplechase, who has won a scholarship to study in Colorado, and hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Diane’s favourite things
From the age of 11, Diane Modahl recalls being ferried from her home in Longsight, Manchester, to Cheshire’s ‘leafy suburbs’ to train with Sale Harriers.
‘There was nobody who looked like me in that club,’ she recalls. ‘But they were very welcoming, very positive.’
She and husband Vicente lived in Sale for many years and still relish Cheshire life, be it running for fun in Tatton Park, taking the kids around Chester Zoo, breakfasting in Alderley Edge or visiting favourite Knutsford eateries including Café Tuscano and Don Giovanni.
Home today is Didsbury, where they are big fans of The Deli on Wilmslow Road and the coffee and cakes at the cafe overlooking the botanical gardens in Fletcher Moss Park.