The bleakness of Bernice Wilson’s story was seldom so stark as when she presented herself at her mother’s front door, blood streaming down her face.
She had just told her boyfriend, the disgraced athletics coach George Skafidas, that she wanted to leave him. In response, he hit her, just one manifestation of what the UK’s National Anti-Doping panel would later describe as a “troubled and abusive relationship”. This should, Wilson reflects, have been her cue to sever all ties. And yet the pair reunited, sparking a spiral of betrayal that would leave her scrambling to recover not just her reputation but any semblance of a future.
Once, Wilson was one of the country’s most gifted young sprinters, representing Britain at the 2011 European Indoors in Paris. Today, at 38, she combines her work in infection control at a Nottinghamshire hospital with mentoring some of the county’s finest athletes. In the intervening years, her life entered the type of nightmarish doom-loop that, even in her own retelling, she struggles to comprehend. The one consistent figure is that of Skafidas, the man whom she trusted with her career but who would later admit to having doped her, initially with her knowledge but subsequently by deceit, swapping her multivitamin tablets with doses of clomiphene, a prohibited stimulant.
It is Wilson’s cross to bear that she will always be known for the two drug bans she has served. The prospect grieves her, in part because of the talent she knew she possessed. “I was a good athlete,” she says. “Sometimes, when people see a ban, they think your whole career was a fake – and it wasn’t.”
But she is also anxious to ensure that her poor choices are not presented without context. For they were, she stresses, defined not just by doping, but by mendacity and abuse, perpetrated by a man who controlled her to the extent of checking her phone and destroying her letters, and who haunted her so persistently that her flat in Newark needed to be equipped by police with a panic button.
Skafidas admitted all nine charges brought against him in 2016 by the UK Anti-Doping Agency, which included giving Wilson clenbuterol and knowingly disposing of correspondence informing her that she had tested positive. The panel’s verdict was unequivocal: in applying the rare punishment of a lifetime ban from coaching, it concluded that Skafidas’s offences were “clearly at the most serious end of the spectrum, considering his relationship with the athlete, the steps he took to induce her to take doping agents, the risk to her health, the jeopardy in which he placed her, the cover-up of his violations, and the effect his conduct has had on her life”.
It added: “Dr Skafidas had a personal relationship with the athlete from 2008 and she was clearly under his influence. He was physically and emotionally abusive to her and she was frightened of him.”
Wilson recounts her astonishing tale with a disarming equanimity. During an hour-long interview, she displays not a shred of self-pity. Instead, she expresses a determination to emerge from Skafidas’s shadow, highlighting her engagement to a new partner, her plans to move house, and her efforts to make peace with the past by becoming a strident anti-doping advocate. Her experience raises profound questions, though, about society’s perception of those who have doped and whether long-term forgiveness is even possible.
The world of athletics has been convulsed by the fallout from CJ Ujah’s failed drugs test, for which the British sprinter blamed a contaminated supplement after the banned substances ostarine and S23 were found in his urine. Ujah and all three of his sprint-relay team-mates were stripped of the silver medals they won at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. For one, Richard Kilty, the souring of his proudest moment on the track warrants anything but clemency. When Reece Prescod suggested last week that Ujah should not be ostracised, Kilty shot back: “It’s b——-. Reece is not in a position to forgive anybody, because he hasn’t lost a medal.”
Wilson, while wary of criticising Kilty, highlights the dangers of consigning any athlete to permanent pariah status. “If Richard Kilty doesn’t want to forgive, that’s that,” she says. “If he was told to forgive, it might make it worse. I can understand – and this might sound weird coming from me – what he’s saying. Part of me just hopes CJ Ujah is OK mentally, because it can be such a lonely place. He will probably feel everybody is against him, not just his team-mates.”
The sense of isolation is what cut deepest for Wilson as her life with Skafidas span out of control. When the domestic violence began, she felt, ultimately, that she had nowhere to turn. “Some of my family knew,” she explains. “It became very dangerous, to be honest. They wanted me to move out, which eventually I did. But I never thought I would be in that situation. If people hear about this type of story, they think, ‘Oh, just leave, get rid of him’. But it’s so hard to do.
“I thought I depended on him. George didn’t like me to socialise with others. He would go through my phone. Not long before I first tested positive, my dad passed away. It was a really dark time. I felt alone, as if everything he said was correct. Even though other people can see the problem, sometimes you can’t. It’s really strange. Sometimes it takes something drastic to happen for you to say, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing with my life? I’ve got to get out’.”
The events of 2011 triggered just such a visceral response. A sample that Wilson had given on June 12, at a track meeting in Bedford, came back positive for testosterone and clenbuterol, a banned anabolic steroid. Skafidas had insisted she take the drugs, knowing they could improve her endurance. “When it was first put to me, I thought, ‘No I can’t do that’. Then George said, ‘Well, everyone does it and you’ll be the odd one out’. I had heard the stories about bans, but I wasn’t aware how bad things could become.”
Skafidas, then a UK Athletics-licensed coach, ran a training group for young athletes in Lincolnshire, where he first came into contact with Wilson. She was under the impression that he knew exactly what her body needed for peak performance, even though he had no medical qualifications.
While he was entitled to be known as Dr Skafidas, his only doctorate had been earned in sports science, in Bulgaria. The cost of following his prescribed doping regime was grievous: aged 27, at a pivotal juncture in her career, she was banned for four years.
Behind the scenes, Wilson was not just being manipulated – “I took the blame for everything,” she says – but abused. “We were in George’s car,” she recalls. “It was quite late at night, and when I said I didn’t want to be in the relationship, he hit me. When my mum opened the door, she saw blood down me.”
Asked why they later reconciled, Wilson says that she felt pressured into doing so, pointing out how Skafidas would wait outside her mother’s house for her to appear. It was a move she would soon come to regret. For while Wilson resolved to be fastidious in her attempts to compete clean, her coach was secretly meddling with her medication. “I just had normal Holland & Barrett vitamins in my cupboard,” she says. “George still said, ‘You should be taking drugs’. And I said no. I was so careful with everything I put in my body. But he was swapping my tablets for a banned substance. I never knew that someone would do that to me.”
When a letter confirming a positive reading for clomiphene arrived in April 2015, Wilson was none the wiser, as Skafidas had hidden it from her. Only a phone call from UKAD at work revealed the picture of how cynically she had been tricked. The outlook was grim, with Wilson facing a 40-month suspension, the minimum sanction for a second offence, and by extension the loss of any athletics hopes. Except this time, she had evidence of Skafidas’s deviousness, showing her solicitor a video of a Skype conversation in which her ex-boyfriend, by then back in Greece, had admitted to changing her tablets.
“I played the video in UKAD’s office. It was very embarrassing, full of me swearing at George. But I knew that things would be different this time, because it all came out about how George had been with me. It was only when I was driving home that I felt this huge relief. A rainbow even came out across the road. I took it as a sign that everything was going to be OK.”
It might be too glib to suggest the scars have healed. Having had her ban cut to 10 months thanks to her exposure of Skafidas, it took her longer to cut him adrift. For years, he would continue to send her 12 red roses on Valentine’s Day against her wishes. She is now so paranoid about pills that she refuses even to take paracetamol for a headache.
But there are signs, through Wilson’s happiness in her coaching and in the passion of her anti-doping message, that the pall of darkness might be lifting. The stigma will linger, as it will for any banned athlete, but her suffering at Skafidas’s hands offers a vivid warning against damning her for a lifetime.