The story so far. The British Cyclist, Lizzie Armitstead, one of Team GB’s favourites for an Olympic medal, escaped a doping ban just before Rio. Her lawyer successfully argued to a court of arbitration that one of her three missed drug tests (usually a trigger for an automatic ban) was the fault of the testers themselves. They didn’t look hard enough for her at the hotel in Sweden where she was staying. Cue controversy. Tears and strong denial from the athlete herself and her fears of being forever “tainted”.
As with all traumas, the human reaction to this piece of news has been varied. Some rivals have complained bitterly that the ban should stand. Some fellow athletes on the GB team have said: “Whooa, don’t want to go there.” The Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, and teammates have supported her. But what about the watching, waiting, anticipating British public on their sofas (and, in the interests of diversity, other furniture) wondering what the hell to make of it?
In conjunction with a leading psychologist specialising in Sofa Syndromes (not really), this is the rough guide to our feelings as the first Brit-alarm in Rio unfolds.
1. INCREDULITY – What! Lizzie? No. The world, Commonwealth and national road race champion, from the market town of Otley. Engaged to be married to fellow cyclist. A sincerely hot prospect for our first British women’s gold in Rio. The Russians may be cheating because of a cynical, state-run doping system involving mouse holes (explain later) but a Yorkshirewoman whose career has been founded on grit and persistence, growing in substance – but not substances – before our eyes. It just cannot be. We refuse adamantly to even consider the prospect.
2. DOUBT – We consider the prospect. Well, look, why would anyone miss three drug tests? Isn’t it emblazoned across the heart, mind and soul of any self-governing athlete that missing one test is a mistake, two looks like carelessness and three is a full-rank, career-threatening bloody disaster. And, in this year, leading up to an Olympics? Not leaving your phone on? Not giving testers your hotel room number? What were they supposed to do? Bribe the concierge? Throw stones at the windows? Questions as always and no definitive answers.
3. DESPAIR – Rio in wreckage already. Every Russian is suspect, the rainforest imperiled, the water’s polluted, the Brazilian government’s corrupt and we’re being invited to feel sorry for Lizzie Armitstead. We don’t feel sorry for Lizzie Armitstead. The wound is self-inflicted. We feel more inclined to feel sorry for Russian discus thrower, Darya Pishchalnikova, the 2012 silver medalist, who disappeared from view after she sent an email to the World Anti Doping Agency in December 2012 detailing institutionalised Russian doping including her own. Wada – instead of investigating – sent it to the Russian authorities. She was banned by her own country for 10 years. Attempts by the New York Times to reach her have been unsuccessful.
4. WAVERING – Tearful, horrified, distracted, Armitstead speaks to the media in Rio. It is difficult to maintain any unconflicted doubt in the face of such obvious human pain. She forgot something. It is not the same as being stuffed up to the ears in chemical enhancement. Who hasn’t put the phone in the fridge, or locked themselves out, or absently tweeted their privates to the nation? Randomly losing the plot is part of the human condition. On the other hand, this is cycling, once haven for the astronomic and multi-facted cheating of Lance Armstrong and cohorts. Can a drugged up leopard change its spotted history so completely?
5. UNDERSTANDING – How is she going to win our one of our first medals when she is feeling so obviously hounded? Her contrition and upset shines through. We are moved. We are patriots. We want her to be a victim of the human condition – the one that makes you forget things not the one that makes you cheat, As her lawyer, Mike Morgan of Morgan Sports Law, successfully argued the “advice” is that athletes should furnish their hotel rooms numbers to testers, but it is not “a rule”. You have to say that UK Anti-Doping and Wada make life difficult for themselves when they allow grey areas to permeate their governance. It’s their fault, not hers. Disbelief becomes soluble in the interests of justice – or just winning.
6. GUILT – It is a terrible thing to doubt a leading light of your own tribe. Witness the Labour party. Blind faith is a cornerstone of civilisation. It feels shocking – despite the circumstantial evidence – to have suspected one of your own. The Russians – with their hard bodies and dyed blonde hair – yes. Plus the news that at the Sochi Winter Olympics the modern equivalent on the KGB were instrumental in passing clean urine through a mouse hole at the testing lab and withdrawing the tainted stuff in return. We don’t do that. Britain has no mouse holes of shame, you can bank on it.
7. SOD IT – The Opening Ceremony, huh, with its fake trees, dancing microbes and prancing supermodel. Wait a minute. Andy Murray looked so proud as he held aloft the Union Flag (with left hand) and the simple lighting of the cauldron by Vanderlei Cordiero de Lima was touching. This the man who was leading the 2004 marathon in Athens when a drunken, defrocked priest rugby-tackled him on the road. Recovering from the crazy interruption, he continued and finished third, smiling and dancing (being Brazilian) as he crossed the line. It is impossible to deny the Olympic spirit, even when the Olympics themselves are so enmeshed in dodgy politics and darkness.
So in the spirit of that spirit: win, lose or fall, Armitstead may be surprised by a British public that refuses to un-support her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles