WITHIN the fog enveloping the murky world of athletics there are glimpses of light.
Steph Twell’s return to the Diamond League stage this afternoon in Birmingham after two years of injury should be a source of unabashed celebration. Yet the latest round of allegations and innuendo smearing her sport are just one more source of pain for the Commonwealth Games 1500 metres medallist. “I found it disheartening,” she says. “It’s really sad to abuse the sport like that because it’s unethical, even to push the boundaries.”
Exactly what Alberto Salazar may have undertaken in his personal drive to push the charges he oversees at the Nike Oregon Project remains a tale barely uncovered, for now more allegations than truths. The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and UK Athletics must scrutinise the coach to the max if credibility is to be restored. Yet within the sport, few of the accusations made by the BBC and others last week came out of left field. People talk and speculate. Complete secrecy is inevitably impossible.
Twell had heard the jungle drums beat. “Part of my own reasoning for leaving Nike was that I wasn’t really sure of the ethos I was getting the vibes of,” the Scot, 25, says. “There have been these sort of rumours in the past so it’s good someone has revealed them. Because I don’t believe in always following the super-hero hype.”
Unlike UK Athletics, who readily encouraged its endurance hopefuls to seek wisdom in America’s north-west in the wake of Mo Farah’s transformational emigration there in 2011. Having seen a cruel series of fractures, surgeries and setbacks lead to exclusion from the Lottery-backed performance programme, Twell did not receive an invitation to visit Salazar’s Swoosh-funded shrine.
“But I hope my own morals are strong enough that even if I’d been slightly suspicious and heard the rumours, I just wouldn’t go near it,” she confirms. “I wouldn’t want to be associated with it and I’d want to be removed. It’s safer for everything to be black and white than to be grey.
“It seems they’re happy to be in that grey area where you can make these shiny statements, and hold them up, but still not really talk about it. I’d prefer to be whiter than white, with nothing to hide. I’m glad I’ve not been part of it and I don’t know why UKA have got that association because I was always really sceptical about it.”
Twell should naturally feel aggrieved at circumventions of fair play. During a prodigious youth in which she claimed the world junior 1500m title, Twell was denied a second European gold during a sprint for the line by Romania’s Cristina Vasiloiu. Barely a year later, her teenage rival had retired following a positive test for EPO but her victory was never annulled.
It is a reminder of the inequities but also, more positively, of how impressive Twell was at such a young age, an Olympian just days after her 19th birthday, a force in cross-country, a regular on the Grand Prix circuit, yet forced to rebuild from scratch in the wake of the ankle fracture she sustained four years ago.
Back approaching her best, she has embraced the invigoration. “I respect my opposition because it always feels like an opportunity to improve and push yourself. But I felt I deserved all this whereas now I’m keen to get back to where I was and I do appreciate it and take more out of the experience.”
Before, it was simpler. “I was just there to run fast,” she states. Birmingham, she hopes, will signify progress. “The 1500 was my event and I do want to get back to where I’ve been. But I’m trying to come at it from a fresh angle. I’m a different person since the injury and I’m just relishing the challenge.”
Twell’s priorities now are more varied. With a Masters in Strength and Conditioning, she has branched out into coaching at the University of Surrey while also working as a teaching assistant with troubled children. She remains part of the Twickenham-based training group overseen by her long-time coach Mick Woods but has opened herself up to alternative advice.
A spot in Rio, in 15 months time, would be payback for extreme perseverance. She must trust her physiology complies. “I like to think I’ve put myself back together properly. Last year, I was going well before I picked up a hip injury but now it feels right. I’ve been just really unfortunate with timing. Now I’ve got the (5000m) world qualifying time and if I can get it again before the trials, it would be awesome. But I want to develop more, and if the body can handle it, I’ll be so happy.”