Van Vleuten’s sickening crash puts everything else into proper perspective
Lizzie Armitstead said: “I can’t feel sorry for myself.” She was right about that, when Annemiek van Vleuten had been left jack-knifed and motionless by a sickening downhill crash. There were much bigger issues to worry about than whether Armitstead had been upset by the self-inflicted distraction of her three missed doping tests.
Well, two missed doping tests, technically, because the first was quashed by the Court of Arbitration in Sport, thus clearing the way for the London 2012 silver medalist to chase gold over a course that many experts consider to have been downright dangerous.
Armitstead’s fifth place behind Van Vleuten’s Dutch team-mate, Anna van der Breggen, will hardly qualify as a tragedy, however much sleep she lost, whatever the damage to her standing.
We probably ought to reserve the sympathy for Mara Abbott, the American rider dumped from first to fourth in a sprint finish along the Copacabana – and most of all for Van Vleuten, who braked on the course’s most challenging descent, hit a pavement edge and landed on her face, a fall that left her crumpled on the verge.
Those perilous descents and high pavements jeopardised riders in both the men’s and women’s races, and none crashed more chillingly than Van Vleuten, who broke away from Abbott as they came over a hill but ended up presenting a haunting spectacle to the rest of the field as they sped past.
Armitstead was one of those who will have seen the Dutch faller, as she struggled on to finish fifth. It was another reason for Britain’s big hope to count her blessings.
All day there was a curious mingling of the legal and moral currents around Armitstead. Legally, there could be no doubting her right to be in the race – unless CAS judgments are suddenly to be ignored.
At the start her father, who harangued the journalist who broke the story of her missed tests, wore a union flag emblazoned with her name, and supporters shouted: “Go Lizzy.” In her entourage there was a sense that Armitstead was being seen as a victim of some kind of miscarriage of justice.
The condemnation, they can argue with. The facts, they cannot. But in sport’s denial culture, the messenger (or the reporter) is deemed to be ‘ the problem’, and not the sheer unprofessionalism of allowing three dope tests to be missed inside 10 months.
Families sticking by their loved ones is hardly a shock. Who would not do the same? But where it crept into mawkishness was the suggestion that potential hurt to Armitstead’s feelings were the paramount concern. We passed the point decades ago where it is the public duty’s to accept every explanation they are given for missed doping tests: the point where moral reservations are considered an insult to the athlete.
On the start line, the three British riders maintained icy expressions. No words were exchanged until Armitstead leant across and tapped Nikki Harris and Emma Pooley, wishing them both good luck.
Pooley and Harris were entitled to be resentful about the fuss around Armitstead, for the distraction it created, and the feeling it created that Armitstead had treated the sport she “loves” with disregard, whatever the circumstances of each missed test (she went to great lengths to explain each one, shifting some of the blame to the testers).
The lack of warmth on the start line was predictable. Beyond the British trio there was outright hostility, with Pauline Ferrand-Prévot of France, Armitstead’s predecessor as world champion, calling the decision to annul her first transgression “shameful.”
She went on: “It’s not about Lizzie. It’s about the judgment. It’s not fair that she can race and other riders cannot. I have nothing against Lizzie. I will be very happy to see her at the start line, because she is very strong and this is the Olympics. But the rule has to be the same for everybody.”
Her point, by the looks of it, is that going back in time and nullifying the first of three offences so that the third becomes, in effect, the second, violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. And Armitstead’s negligence in not avoiding a third transgression when she had already committed two was hard to forgive.
Among the possible outcomes were that Armitstead would win, be booed and have to submit to hostile cross-examination, or miss out on a medal while blaming emotional stress. On the BBC she said she felt like a “zombie” in the race through lack of sleep.
“I have to come to terms with it,” she said. “I can’t pick up the phone to everybody that doubts me and explain myself. The only thing that I can do – and the only thing I’ve always done – is to ride my bike fast and get my head down and control the things I can control.”
Obscured by the Armitstead imbroglio was British cycling’s disappointing results. In the men’s and women’s races, Team GB riders finished fifth, 11th, 12th and 15th, with four non-finishers. Armitstead was the best of them.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to putting this behind me,” she said. Her reputational scarring, though, was nothing compared to Van Vleuten’s brush with death. To hear that she was conscious made everything else seem tiny.
Fans shouted, ‘Go Lizzy,’ and there was a sense in her entourage that she was a victim
Golden girl: Anna van der Breggen secures victory for Holland