A month before facing the world’s best at the Beijing Olympics, USA Cycling squared off against one of its own, track rider Rebecca Quinn, in a Colorado Springs courtroom. On July 9 Quinn took USA Cycling to arbitration after the governing body’s selection committee did not name her to its Olympic squad. Quinn, who hoped to compete in the Olympic points race, complained that favoritism and a conflict of interest involving team coach Andy Sparks and individual pursuit rider Sarah Hammer — Sparks’ fiancé — kept her from making the team.

By Fred Dreier

A month before facing the world’s best at the Beijing Olympics, USA Cycling squared off against one of its own, track rider Rebecca Quinn, in a Colorado Springs courtroom. On July 9 Quinn took USA Cycling to arbitration after the governing body’s selection committee did not name her to its Olympic squad. Quinn, who hoped to compete in the Olympic points race, complained that favoritism and a conflict of interest involving team coach Andy Sparks and individual pursuit rider Sarah Hammer — Sparks’ fiancé — kept her from making the team.

“Every athlete’s goal is to make the Olympics, and this year was my best chance of making the team,” Quinn, a native of Quakertown, Pennsylvania, told VeloNews. “Maybe I was naïve in thinking USA Cycling would support me in getting a spot for the team. In reality, I felt like they worked against me to get the spot.”

Michael A. Williams, arbitrator for the case, did not agree, and ruled for USA Cycling, concluding that Quinn “was not deprived of a fair opportunity to compete for an Olympic position.”

Williams did not rule completely in favor of USA Cycling, ordering the governing body to pay for court costs, a sum totaling $3936.

“USAC handled the coaching aspect of their role as a national governing body in a way that created legitimate doubts about whether every rider had a fair chance to compete,” Williams stated.

The arguments
Becky Quinn’s career as a professional cyclist dates back to 1996, and since then she has blossomed into one of the United States’ best endurance track riders. She found her calling in the scratch race, and has represented the United States in six world championships, earning two fourth-place finishes.

In 2007-08 she turned her focus away from the scratch, which is not an Olympic event, and toward the points race, hoping to qualify for Beijing. The points race is an endurance event similar to road racing, where drafting and team tactics play a major role.

The 2008 season saw Jennie Reed and Hammer meet USA Cycling’s selection criteria with medal-winning performances at the 2008 UCI world championships, and the U.S. team appeared to be set. Reed took gold and bronze medals at this year’s worlds, and Hammer took silver after winning gold two years in a row.

Quinn has never medaled at worlds.

UCI rules limit each nation to bringing just two female riders to track events at the Games. But the UCI allows the winner of the World Cup overall and world championships in the points race an automatic Olympic berth — a third spot.

Quinn had her eyes on winning the third spot, and emerged from the first two of four World Cup rounds leading the rankings. But she said USA Cycling showed no interest in helping her maintain the lead by detailing other riders to help her in the races. She lost the World Cup jersey after the January 18-20 World Cup round in Carson, California.

Quinn finished third in the final World Cup standings, four points shy of first. Since she did not qualify for Beijing, Hammer will ride the points race in addition to the individual pursuit.

“USA Cycling didn’t feel it was necessary to roster any riders to help me hang onto the jersey — they basically said they weren’t interested in having me make the Olympics,” Quinn said. “Assistance was offered by riders on other trade teams, and USA Cycling said no.”

USA Cycling contends that assigning a rider to help Quinn in the World Cup Points races would violate its own policies. Since the World Cup events were selection races for the Olympic team, the governing body wanted all riders to compete on a level playing field.

“We do not create a team strategy in these events — there are multiple Americans in the field who, by winning, could make the Olympic team,” McDonough said. “If we do that, we’re really asking someone to give up their Olympic dream. And then we’d be in arbitration, and rightfully so.”

McDonough also said that since the Olympic points race is run without teammates, racers should earn their spots as individuals.

Quinn’s brief also charged that USA Cycling denied her access to benefits such as adequate space in the U.S. team’s warm-up cabin, massage and mechanical benefits. In her arbitration brief, the Pennsylvanian presented a laundry list of perks given to Hammer that were not offered to her. Quinn also showed tape of the 2007 World Cup points race in Beijing, where she argued Sparks instructed Hammer to pull up while in a leading position, so as not to help Quinn in the final sprint.

Quinn and her attorney argued that these constituted proof of a conflict of interest between USA Cycling and Hammer centering on Sparks’ role as a team coach, and violated the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which ensure that athletes receive “an equal opportunity to participate in amateur athletic competition without discrimination.”

“USA Cycling told [Quinn] they had no strategy to protect her spot because they already had a person who could ride [the Olympic points race],” said Philip Coates, Quinn’s attorney. “And that person just happens to be the fiancée of the guy coaching riders in the race.”

A former elite track rider, Sparks, 33, was employed as a national coach in November 2006, when he was engaged to Hammer, whom he also personally coached. Sparks stated he was not interested in taking the job if it jeopardized Hammer’s Olympic ambitions or his own coaching career.

McDonough said Sparks was brought on even though his hiring broke a USOC rule prohibiting coaches from engaging in “sexual/romantic relationships with athletes or other participants over whom the coach has evaluative, direct or indirect authority.”

There was a shortage of top-level track cycling coaches within the United States, said McDonough, adding that the team devised a checks-and-balances system to maintain a fair playing field. USA Cycling added Des Dickey as a second coach, and riders could choose which coach to seek for advice, he said.

Neither Sparks nor Dickey was involved in USA Cycling’s team selection for the Olympics, world championships or World Cup events. That job went to a nine-member selection committee.

“Yeah, [Sparks] and Sarah are together — everybody knows it. Sparks is the best track coach in the country right now,” McDonough said. “We made sure to tell our riders that [Sparks] was never involved in any [team] selection, and if they had any problem with him to talk to [Dickey] or myself.”

McDonough said he never heard any complaints from Quinn until after the World Cup season had ended.

“To me it was interesting that [Quinn] admitted that she never came to me, [Dickey], [USAC CEO] Steve Johnson or anyone to say she had a problem with [Sparks],” McDonough said. “Then all of a sudden it’s after world championships, when everything was over, and [Quinn] sits down with me and lays all of this stuff out. Where did it come from?”

The ruling
For two days Williams listened to testimony from Quinn, Sparks, Hammer and a handful of American track riders. He concluded there was no doubt that a conflict of interest existed between Sparks and Hammer, and that USA Cycling never fully communicated its plan to address the conflict to its riders.

“Although USAC officials had done some planning about how to deal with the problem of conflicted coaches, they had not thoroughly thought the problem through,” Williams stated.

But Williams said he could not find reason to believe that Sparks actively tried to impede Quinn’s performance. He watched the tape of the Beijing World Cup that appeared to show Sparks coaching Hammer to ride against Quinn, and concluded, “There was no evidence from which I could clearly see that there was an improper motive.”

In regards to USA Cycling not fielding riders to help Quinn defend her jersey, Williams stated: “The evidence is clear that she did not get such support. It is also quite clear that [Quinn] did not directly ask for such support.

“The evidence generally showed that [the lack of support] occurred. The evidence also showed that there were reasons for these events that were understandable and not the result of any bias toward Ms. Quinn.”

The outcome
Had Williams found that Quinn was wronged, USA Cycling would have found itself in a tight position. Since the UCI had already awarded the Olympic points-race positions to the winners of the World Cup and world championships, the only spots available for Beijing were the three discretionary Olympic spots yet to be named by USA Cycling. One was for women’s mountain biking, and two were for women’s road racing.

No language within the UCI or USA Cycling rulebook stated that the spots had to go specifically to a road, mountain bike or track racer. USA Cycling had to put off naming mountain biker Mary McConneloug and road racers Amber Neben and Christine Thorburn to the Olympic team for several weeks.

“If [Quinn] would have won, then we would have had to decide who lost their spot,” said Alison Dunlap, a member of USA Cycling’s selection committee. “I have no idea how we would have done that.”

Quinn maintains that her goal of her arbitration hearing was not to steal a spot from another American cyclist. She says she wanted to draw attention to the cronyism and conflicts of interest present within USA Cycling.

“Why would I want to steal a spot from someone who qualified fair and square?” Quinn said. “Our burden was to prove that the system was flawed, and unfortunately we didn’t do that. But if I can open up the can of worms to keep this from happening again, that’s what I’m going to do.”

McDonough, however, believes Quinn’s need for arbitration comes from the disappointment of not qualifying for the Olympics.

“I understand — I was an athlete trying to make the Olympics, and I made one and didn’t make the other,” McDonough said. “But we have two athletes who have proven they can win World Cup and world-championships medals. Becky is a very good rider, but she’s just not quite at that level.”