The 1990 Commonwealth 800m gold medallist Diane Modahl is still involved with sport, helping youngsters through her own foundation, writes Emily Moss
A six-time AAA national champion and former English 800m record-holder with 1:58.65, Diane Modahl’s life after athletics has included working for the BBC in the lead-up to the 2002 Commonwealth Games in her hometown of Manchester, appearing in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here and establishing the Diane Modahl Sports Foundation (DMSF), which helps more than 700 young people a week across Manchester.
Unfortunately, however, the three-time Commonwealth Games medallist, whose best moment came when she topped the podium in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1990, is often not best remembered for her athletic achievements, but for being falsely accused of a doping offence on the eve of the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
She would have started as favourite to retain her title in ’94, but was sent home by the British Athletics Federation and unable to participate. The following year, Modahl had her doping ban overturned after flaws were discovered with how a Lisbon laboratory had stored her sample.
However, despite successfully proving her innocence, Modahl feels she was robbed of some of her best years. In addition, the emotional and physical consequences endured by herself and husband and coach, Vicente, have been long-lived.
At a time when Modahl was at her racing peak – she had placed fourth in the World Championships the year before in 1993 – the couple faced huge legal fees and in 2013 Vicente had a double heart bypass, which they are sure is in no small part linked to the 20 years of stress and lack of justice they endured.
Modahl, now aged 50, is not afraid to speak out against a blanket ban for convicted dopers, albeit she knows not everyone agrees.
“I know most people think it should be a life ban and I respect others’ opinions,” she says. “However, it is fundamentally wrong. Innocent athletes should not be punished.”
“These people advocating life bans, they have no clue what I went through. The false accusations have had a major impact on my life today”
When pressed about her personal experience, it is clear from her voice just how close the issue is to her heart and how deeply affected she has been as a result of the false accusation.
Speaking quietly, the articulate and usually upbeat Modahl adds: “These people advocating life bans, they have no clue what I went through. The false accusations have had a major impact on my life today.
“I have had to live with the consequences of the mistakes of others. It is hard to describe just how serious the consequences are when the authorities get it wrong. Everyone rushes to judgement, but it can be wrong. I have been wrong done by and mistreated by the authorities.”
With drugs in athletics forever in the headlines, Modahl explains how, somewhat ironically given her personal experience, she is rarely asked to give her view on what can be learnt from what happened to her and ensure that another innocent athlete is not unfairly punished.
“They often speak to drugs cheats or so-called whistle-blowers and ask for their opinion, but they have never asked me, despite the fact I have an authentic opportunity to add value to the current discussion,” she says. “It is crucial that we do not swing so far in our fight to rid sport of drug cheats, that we forget that the way to protect innocent athletes is certainly not to ban them.”
Possessing a degree in media and business management and passionate about journalism, it was a logical step for Modahl to go on to the media circuit after retiring from the sport in 2000.
Even more fitting was that her home town of Manchester was preparing to host the Commonwealth Games in 2002, so Modahl worked alongside the chief anchorman for the BBC regional news programme North West Tonight, Gordon Burns – best known as the former host of The Krypton Factor – in the lead-up to the Games and she interviewed trackside during the event itself.
“You don’t realise as an athlete just quite how much work goes in behind the scenes in the lead-up to a Games,” she says. “I was in a hard hat reporting from the various venues as they were being built and it was an incredible insight into what went into the making of the athletics stadium, with the added interest I had due to being a Mancunian.
“You don’t realise as an athlete just quite how much work goes in behind the scenes in the lead-up to a Games”
“During the Games I was really close to the action, both in the BBC studio and interviewing athletes live trackside. I had the best seat in the house.”
Legacy is so important to Modahl that she wanted to put something concrete in place to help the next generation. After a stint as a newspaper columnist for the Manchester Evening News, she set about helping young people find their passion through the creation of the Diane Modahl Sports Foundation (DMSF) in 2010.
The charity has created an environment in which excellence can thrive by giving young people a sense of purpose, through and beyond sport.
This is done through breaking down all sorts of barriers to develop young people’s capabilities, and using sport as a catalyst for change, particularly those living in some of the poorest areas across the UK.
“Having been involved in sport all my life, I knew there was more I could do once I retired,” Modahl explains. “I wanted to make a difference. We were living in Norway, but I sat down with my husband and we looked at the challenges in Manchester.”
They came back to the UK and she was offered the opportunity to be a chief ambassador for the charity Street Games with the aim of raising their profile and connecting them with sponsors.
“I saw the young people and realised there was a missing opportunity to provide purpose through sport, which is why we established the DMSF,” she says. “We have partnerships and deliver programmes into nine schools and 15 youth clubs (soon 45 thanks to funding from Sport England) and we work with over 700 young people a week across Manchester,” she says.
It is also abundantly clear just how important Modahl’s own family is to her. “I am so grateful for the fact I have three beautifully spirited young girls and I try to start the day with them,” she says, speaking about Imani (20), who studies law at Manchester University, Gisella (9) and Giorgia (8).
In the office, she works alongside former English Schools 100m champion Rebekah Wilson, who participated in the 2014 Winter Olympics in bobsleigh. “We map out where the key priorities are and at the moment we are coordinating 20 to 27 programmes,” says Modahl.
However, it isn’t long before the word ‘legacy’ comes up again. “We want to ensure we are sustainable, so it is about securing the funding so we can grow. We want to be delivering over 50 programmes by 2020,” she says.
“Having been involved in sport all my life, I knew there was more I could do once I retired. I wanted to make a difference”
Modahl still enjoys going out running with her training buddy Imani. She typically trains three times a week, running 60 minutes on Sundays, completing an interval training session such as 4x200m or hills another day, plus a strength and conditioning session.
So is Modahl contemplating a comeback over the two-lap distance? What does she think she can run these days? She is too modest to give away too much.
“I’m not sure how fast I could run,” she says. “The other day I did 4x200m in 32 seconds and 33 seconds off 40 seconds rest, but was convincingly beaten by the youngsters in the group,” she says.
Still, that is highly impressive considering she runs only two or three times a week.
“If I could get a bit more training in over the winter, I could get my times down a bit more,” she adds, the competitive streak within her clearly intrigued about what her body is still capable of.
Her intrigue is not surprising, given that she reflects on a decorated career that, as well as including six national 800m titles, saw her go to four Olympic Games, four IAAF World Championships, four European Championships, go six seasons unbeaten by any other British athlete over her specialist distance, set a British record for 600m, an English record over 800m and a Commonwealth Games record of 2:00.25.
A talented youngster, her English Schools record stood for 19 years, too. “I miss the processes that go with being an athlete,” she says. “I had the opportunity to go on training camps and it was a privilege to be able to do what I love in beautiful surroundings. I had an amazing career and I am really fortunate.”
She is now looking ahead to 2020 with the dual ambition of unlocking the potential and enriching the lives of the DMSF participants, as well as meeting her own strategic targets in relation to the number and diversity of programmes the charity offers. Always looking to give back, she says: “Our team accepts the challenge that raising funds is a continual task in seeking sponsorship from donors, and finding collaborations and partners who like us are driven to instilling resilience in each and all to achieve their goals.”