Tony Dewhurst talks to Diane, who this year was awarded an MBE for services to sport, about her experience in the eye of the storm and how the Professional Footballers’ Association has helped the Diane Modahl Sports Foundation to assist disadvantaged young people in the North-West.
For British sport it was a moment of greatness. For Diane Modahl, it was the greatest moment of her life.
When the Manchester athlete won gold at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland the runner from Longsight had the world at her feet.
Indeed, she would have started as favourite to defend her title in Canada four years later, but instead Modahl was sent home in disgrace, accused of cheating.
It made headlines across the world, but despite proving her innocence a year later, and the British Athletics Federation lifting the ban, she says she lost much more as she fought a six-year legal battle for damages that left her facing ruin.
“To be falsely accused of taking performance enhancing drugs is the worst accusation any athlete can endure,” said Diane.
“Winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, the six British records and the many titles I’d won, and then to be told it was a lie was awful.
“We knew the truth, that I was innocent, and that gave me the strength to fight on.
“It was a very difficult time in my life, and still is.
“Undoubtedly, I lost something special.
“I don’t think you ever get over the hurt, pain and isolation and then there’s the financial, emotional and spiritual cost too.”
She had been banned on the strength of a positive drugs test from an earlier race in Lisbon.
However, it emerged that the sample had been kept in unsafe conditions that, scientists proved, would cause any test to yield a false positive.
At first, there was hostility towards her but that quickly turned to sympathy across the nation and when you meet her you soon realize why because she is the type of person you warm to instantly.
Diane has a sunny outlook with a big smile for the world and infectious personality - but she had to be as tough as teak on the inside for what came next.
“When I saw what had been written I was horrified: ‘Rotten,’ ‘Ban her for life,’ and ‘She should never wear an England vest again.’
“It was truly heartbreaking because there was not one shred of evidence that testosterone had gone through my body.
“However, the press quickly saw that something didn’t add up and we quickly had the media and public behind us.”
But the now defunct British Athletics Federation dug their heels in, and Diane added: “There was no way that they were going to let this little nobody from Manchester prove that the drug testing system was wrong.
“I’ll never forget the support people showed, though, and I still get hundreds of letters every year, and in many ways it has kept us going because we’ll never forget this.
“’But I’m a Mancunian, and we are made of tough stuff.
“We are honest.
“We are fair.
“We have that true northern grit and we don’t give up in the face of adversity.”
Returning from Canada she recalls a nurse asking if she needed a blanket to conceal her face on arrival at Heathrow airport.
“I was shocked and replied: ‘Why do I need that?
“I’ve done nothing wrong.
“I’m completely innocent.”
Many years after Diane was exonerated of doping, drugs in sport remains a topical on the news desks.
But she says it was husband Vicente who provided Diane’s anchor during her darkest hours.
“Vicente was pivotal, and clearing my name was down to him,” she said.
“When I was weak he was strong and we were a united team.”
This year Diane was proudly awarded the MBE for Services to Sport and to young people in the North-west of England.
“It was humbling and overwhelming to be recognized in that way, “ she said.
“I was proud of the gold medal I won 28 years ago, but my legacy is my family and the work I do with the Diane Modahl Sports Foundation.”
Typically, she wanted to put something in place to help the next generation.
“Manchester has been so kind to me over the years and I thought, ‘What can I do for the city?
“What can I do for those marginalized young people who, like me, were growing up in Moss Side, Hulme, all across city, who are full of ambition, hope and potential.
“What they don’t have is an opportunity to maximise and develop their potential.
“We say to our young people: pull your socks up and work hard.
“But they also need modern role models, like Usain Bolt and the England team at the World Cup in Russia.
“It is important that the young people meet them, talk to them, and that’s what makes it real and accessible.
“We need to do more of that, make the connection stronger.
“We all need somebody who believes in us, a guardian, parent or a PE teacher, who sees a spark in us long before we see it in ourselves.”
Diane found that glow of energy when she met the Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Gordon Taylor at an awards luncheon.
“I saw it immediately in Gordon, a person who understood that football and sport has the power to change lives.
“Gordon Taylor is not only genuinely passionate about what he does, but, crucially, about people and that’s a reflection of his leadership skills, that he has led the players’ union so well and so consistently since 1981.
“He has a great ability to work with a team, to lead people to better themselves and better the game.
“I think that is something that is often overlooked about him, that he is still there, highly respected after 38 years at the helm, and that is an incredible achievement.”
And linking up with the Professional Footballers’ Association, has, she says, helped expand the foundation’s work further in the community.
“I’ve a great ambition to replicate what Gordon Taylor has achieved with the PFA, in terms of strengthening the depth of the family in our sporting foundation.
“Our partnership with the PFA is invaluable and we’ve had some great success working together.
“Indeed, the extra funding provided by the PFA is now being used to support pupils all across the North-West as they develop leadership skills, and with the inspirational work of Terry Angus, the union’s Community Equalities Executive, we are achieving great things together.
“They understand the needs of young people and in the past few years we’ve had 87,000 visits to our sport and education programmes and registered many hundreds of young people.
“More importantly, together, we are giving young people a sense of purpose in their lives.”
Diane recalls entering a beauty contest as a teenager, when at Ducie High School in Moss Side.
“I was 15, walked on stage, and the question came: What do you want to do when you grow up?
“I said: ‘I want to go to the Olympic Games.’
‘And I never forgot the response I got.
“Everybody just burst out laughing.
“I went to four Olympic Games in the end.
“What I say to young people today is that it’s okay to dream big.”