Lizzie Armitstead has won an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport over three missed out-of-competition anti-doping tests that could have seen her banned for four years. Athletes regularly miss tests, these things happen but the hushed nature of her provisional suspension and the way her absence from races was reported by some as a choice raises a lot of questions.
Whereabouts Reminder: pro cyclists have to be available for anti-doping controls all year and away from racing. Riders use a WADA software package called ADAMS to list a one hour slot for every day of the year where they can be found by testers and controlled. Typically they specify an early morning slot, for example 6am-7am because they’re bound to located at home in bed and when travelling tend to specify the hotel for a similar early morning slot. If testers arrive at the specified venue within the time slot and the athlete is not there then a “no show” is marked. Three of these and the rider gets a ban, the reason being that a cheating athlete could duck all these tests and therefore go untested for weeks or months. You might remember the tale of Michael Rasmussen, the Dane who was leading the 2007 Tour de France. He logged his Whereabouts before the Tour as Mexico where he knew anti-doping officers where thin to non-existent on the ground only for him to be spotted training in Italy and, rumbled, he left the Tour de France.
No Show #1: Which brings us to Armitstead, she has missed three tests. The first was when an official showed up in Sweden ahead of the Open de Suède Vårgårda races and tried to conduct a test at 6am only according to the report in the Daily Mail, the basis of Armitstead’s appeal was that the official did not try hard enough to reach her:
Sportsmail understands the testing official did not explain to hotel staff why he wanted to know Armitstead’s room number at her team hotel in Sweden at around 6am. Having been refused the information by the hotel, he then attempted to contact Armitstead on a mobile phone that the cyclist had put on silent while she slept. No further attempts, it appears, were then made by the testing official and a missed test was logged with UKAD.
– Daily Mail
Then followed two more no-shows, the second seems to be an admin error on Armitstead’s behalf and the third the same, only complicated by “an emergency change of plans due to a serious illness within her family”. Armitstead has won the appeal on the basis that the first test was not a case of her not showing up, more that the tester did not try hard enough to reach her.
It begs the question that if the first “no show” was a procedural mistake why was this not challenged at the time rather than waiting for a third strike, a case to be opened only for it to be questioned? Athletes are told soon after a no-show that it has been logged. In a statement issued today UKAD says “Ms Armitstead chose not to challenge the first and second Whereabouts Failures at the time they were asserted against her”. Perhaps it was just banked by Armitstead fearing the hassle with the hope it would fade away; others have certainly done this. If so it came back to bite and that’s no good for anyone. It leaves a Damoclean sword hanging over Armitstead’s head and if an anti-doping agency bungled the test then it should be corrected, if anything so they can learn how to do it right the next time.
No-shows show up: There are no statistics available but a significant number of riders have missed a test or even two. Only a few though have ever missed three. FDJ’s Yoann Offredo served a ban for this in what many saw as an administrative bungle, he was updating his Whereabouts but his team did it when he was racing, he scored two no-shows for himself and his team bungled another meaning he got suspended. There was little he could do about it and his ban and others serve as regular warnings to others not to mess up because one admin mistake can ruin a career. It’s not for nothing that among all the joys of being a pro athlete the ADAMS system and its equivalents are among the biggest pains for athletes although anyone complaining is free to punch a time card in a factory or fill in a time sheet for their office work: most workers have to account for their whereabouts.
What if she was Russian? Some people are saying “imagine if she was Russian or Kazakh” on Twitter, implying that these nations are more tarnished. Nationality seems to be a blind alley, yes some people’s instinctive reaction when they see a foreigner win is to be suspicious but a lot of the world see British athletes as equally foreign too. Here it should not make much difference if Armitstead was riding for a sinister nation like North Korea or representing The Vatican with the blessing of Pope Francis. Instead this is a procedural matter with clear rules that apply to all athletes. To miss three tests is to miss three tests.
British Legal Services: The one area where nationality seems to be part of the story is the way the case seems to have been managed by British Cycling at the Court of Arbitration of Sport. Armitstead rides for the Boels-Dolmans team but is obviously a “Team GB” rider too and British Cycling’s medal hopes rest on her. The governing body is famously dependent on funding from the British lottery where a formula allocates money to sports based on success at World Championships and the Olympics. This sets up an obvious conflict of interest with a governing body’s financial interests becoming aligned with that of a rider rather than the more neutral position a sports administration is supposed to take. Does British Cycling offer legal support for other Team GB riders staring at a ban, for example did they pay for Jonathan Tiernan-Locke’s hearing given he was also selected as a GB rider? The answer is surely no so under what specific circumstances did they decide to work on the CAS appeal?
LA Confidential: On Armitstead was provisionally suspended in 11 July only this seems to have been kept quiet all along. There’s no public record and the case was managed by UKAD. When the UCI has what’s called “result management authority” in the jargon all suspensions, including provisional ones, are listed on their website. Is it policy not to mention provisional suspensions in Britain, whether UK Anti-Doping or British Cycling?
Hush Hush: Now that we know what happened we can look back with hindsight at the reports of her absence at the time. Armitstead was a late DNS from La Course, the Champs Elysées criterium race. A BBC report says “…Armitstead withdrew before the start to concentrate on the Olympics” and London’s Telegraph wrote “The reigning world champion, decided not to risk a crash as she continues her preparations for the women’s Olympic road race”. Two reports with the same line, were the journalists fed a false story?
In response Armitstead said she missed the out of competition trial but says she was tested “the day after this test, reinforcing my position that I do not cheat and had no intention of not being tested”. Whoever wrote this line in her statement for her is raising a smokescreen because everyone knows an unannounced out of competition test is not the same as a regular finish line test. The whole point of an unannounced test is the surprise element and the line above is from the “never tested positive” playbook along with other bingo gems like “Dr Ferrari was just giving my training plans” and the point here is that we don’t know what Armitstead was up to but using a line like this just invites derision.
An admin error or a nefarious plan? You might have your views, you might be confused. Actually we don’t know. But the procedural system and storylines still invoke many questions, such was why the first missed test was only appealed when the thing blew up; why did British Cycling take up the case and was someone telling the media that her absence from racing was an elective decision rather than a ban? All that and more and it only clouds the issues.
- Update 2.00pm CET: following more news and the UKAD statement the piece above has been changed in two places: first “Does British Cycling cover the legal fees” and the next sentence has been changed to “Does British Cycling offer legal support” following the report that British cycling didn’t fund the appeal, they just offered legal support; second to include a quote from the statement by UKAD issued today.