The rainbow jersey has never been stained by a doping ban. No reigning world road race champion has been banned — but Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead came close this summer. Cycling fans now are left with many questions and only a few murky answers.
It’s troubling that she missed three anti-doping controls in a span of less than 12 months, that British Cycling came to her defense in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and that it all happened mere weeks before the Rio Olympics.
But really, what’s bothering me is the obfuscation. The lack of transparency, and the lingering questions over what really happened. This steaming pile of pre-Olympics doping intrigue has landed on the doorstep of one of cycling’s most well-liked personalities to boot. So, before Armitstead toes the line Sunday in Rio, I think cycling fans need a few questions answered.
UPDATE: On Wednesday, Armitstead issued a statement on Facebook, explaining her three missed tests in detail.
Why didn’t she contest the first missed test?
This whole sordid affair began almost one year ago in Sweden, where Armitstead missed her first out-of-competition anti-doping control. The day before her Boels – Dolmans team finished a modest third in the team time trial, an anti-doping official came knocking (at 6 a.m.) and could not reach Armitstead. But it wasn’t her fault — CAS ruled there was “no negligence on Armitstead’s part and that she had followed procedures according to the guidelines.” Seems simple, right? Get it sorted out and move on. But Armitstead, then ranked third in the world, on the second-ranked team, didn’t set the record straight. It’s puzzling why such a prominent rider, who has been part of the Olympic movement for most of her career, with so much to lose, would let it slide.
How did she keep the case so quiet?
For starters, there’s no sense in asking why she wanted to avoid the scrutiny that comes with a provisional suspension (consider the recent case of Simon Yates). So perhaps the better question is how this happened. Is this a case of preferential treatment for a rider who’s arguably the best in the world? Should fans be concerned that agencies like UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) aren’t so tight-lipped for some athletes like Yates, or Jonathan Tiernan-Locke? More fundamentally, it brings up the question of transparency — privacy while we wait for due process is good for the athlete, but does it serve the sport’s need for full disclosure in the post-Lance era?
Should British Cycling be on the defense?
Do I really need to keep mentioning how Boels is the biggest team in women’s cycling right now? It would make far more sense for Armitstead’s professional team to handle the appeal to CAS, not British Cycling. Yes, UKAD and Team GB are ostensibly independent organizations, but the Brits surely think Armitstead has potential to bring home gold from Rio. British Cycling is not defending her simply out of the goodness of their hearts. Remember: This national team is funded by British lottery, and that money is based on the team’s success at world championship and Olympics races. In the harshest terms, Armitstead is a cash cow for British Cycling.
Isn’t it time we heard the whole truth?
Armitstead had a few milquetoast comments in The Daily Mail, which broke the story late Monday. I’m sorry, but that’s not going to cut it. As fans, we need a thorough explanation from her. After all, she’s the reigning world champion, an Olympics silver medalist, an outright favorite, and probably the most popular woman in the peloton. Armitstead should be preparing for Sunday’s race, and yes that requires focus. Dealing with a doping controversy is an obvious distraction. But given her leadership role, and the fact that concerns of doping in the women’s peloton are growing, Armitstead needs to accept the distraction and address the 500-pound gorilla. She owes her fans an explanation. The only way to put this confusing, frankly disappointing, matter to bed is to have a full accounting of the matter. One missed test is understandable, two is surprising, but three missed tests seem downright sketchy.
Women’s cycling has been on the rise for a few years, and fans are taking notice. Better still, we’ve recently had a charming, talented, and exciting-to-watch star in Armitstead. The thing is, no matter how talented the rider, transparency and honesty are the only ways to truly build a legacy.