On Monday afternoon Lizzie Armitstead took part in a conference call with journalists. She was at home in Monaco, preparing to leave for Rio and for a race she has been thinking about ever since she sprinted in front of Buckingham Palace to a silver medal in the road race at the 2012 London Olympics.
Armitstead’s was the first home medal. “Queen Elizabeth” read the headlines. Her first world road race title in Virginia last year only increased the sense of destiny: that in Rio, in today’s road race, she would upgrade silver to gold.
During that interview on Monday, Armitstead sounded preoccupied. Which was understandable – she was about to fly to Rio. But a few hours later it all became clear. Or rather, less clear.
A newspaper reported that Armitstead was lucky to be going to Rio and fortunate not to be serving a doping ban having missed three out-of-competition tests. It emerged that she had been provisionally suspended before a successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which decided that her first missed test should not have counted as a missed test. The disputed test happened in Sweden, where she was racing, on 20 August, 2015. A drug tester turned up at her hotel, but the reception desk would not give the tester her room number. The tester tried phoning Armitstead – which they are not supposed to do, because it gives the athlete advance warning – but Armitstead was sharing the room with a team-mate and her phone was on silent.
This was Armitstead’s first strike. She says she wrote to UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) to complain but to no avail. She let it pass. A month later she became world champion in Richmond, Virginia; a month after that, with the season over, UKAD did a spot check and found that she was not where she said she would be. Strike two.
One more missed test before 19 August, 2016 and Armitstead would face a ban of up to two years. She was on red alert and in December met British Cycling and UKAD and a plan was devised, overseen by Simon Thornton of BC, to help her keep on top of her Whereabouts information.
Eight months later, on 9 June – three weeks after Thornton left BC, which Armitstead says she was unaware of – UKAD tried to test Armitstead but again she was not where she said she would be. “My personal family circumstances at the time of the test were incredibly difficult,” she said this week. She has not made those circumstances public but did share them with UKAD, who “did not perceive my situation to be ‘extreme’ enough to alleviate me of a negligence charge.”
On 8 July Armitstead did not start stage seven of the Giro Rosa in Italy. Then she missed La Course in Paris. It was explained that she didn’t want to risk a crash so close to Rio. In fact, she was provisionally – but secretly – suspended. The secrecy seemed suspicious, but it is standard practice. “It is important to note that we will not publicly disclose provisional suspensions,” say UKAD.
Still, UKAD seem mystified by the CAS verdict – a reasoned decision will be published in due course, which will set out why they overruled UKAD. UKAD also appear to question Armitstead’s claim that she complained at the time about the first missed test.
It is a mess, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of the affair is that it involves Armitstead, an athlete known, and admired, for her professionalism and intelligence and the way she has managed her career and done her own thing. She is self-coached. “People often get it wrong and think ‘She’s self-coached, that means she doesn’t have structure’,” she said this year. “That’s not the case. I have complete structure. I plan out my training in advance and analyse it afterwards.”
The impression, listening to her, was that she was organised and meticulous when it came to training. A reasonable assumption might be that this carried into other aspects of her life as a professional athlete.
She comes across as private and guarded, too, though not so much when she gave interviews to Sky and the BBC after arriving in Rio. These were painful to watch; the reaction to the news of her three missed tests – in the media, on social media and from some of her rivals, with Pauline Ferrand-Prévot calling the CAS decision “shameful” – has left her “absolutely devastated” ahead of today’s road race.
Those who know Armitstead say that she has been a victim of bad luck and that she has suffered reputational damage purely as a result of administrative errors. She is not a drugs cheat, they say, and point out that CAS, sport’s ultimate arbiter, has cleared her. Case closed.
Others say that as world champion she had an even greater responsibility to keeping on top of something as important – as fundamental to anti-doping, and to protecting her own reputation – as her Whereabouts information.
You can have sympathy for Armitstead while also holding the view that she should not be in Rio and should now be serving a ban. These positions are not mutually exclusive.
Rules should never be about the individual. Armitstead’s previous condemnation of doping; her status as world champion; her nationality – these should all be irrelevant. It might have been harsh had Armitstead been punished (and inevitably there will be athletes in Rio guilty of far greater sins), but harsh must be preferable to flexibly applied rules.
Armitstead has had a brilliant season, doing full justice to the rainbow jersey of world champion. It was all set up for Rio. On Monday she talked warmly about her parents’ recent “little adventure” in Brazil, which will end on Sunday. “My dad retired three weeks ago,” she said. They flew to Rio, bought some cheap bikes and they’ve done a tour round the coast, back along to Rio and then they’ve been in the Amazon for a week.”
The dream scenario saw her winning gold in front of her parents. That was before the nightmare of this week and it is difficult to imagine that she will be able to perform as well as she will need to on the mountainous Rio course. But an even bigger concern for Armitstead – as well as for her sport and the Olympics – is that she cannot now win, even if she crosses the line first.