Armitstead (pictured in 2012), narrowly avoided a banDiliff

Last week, Lizzie Armitstead – the world champion road racing cyclist, Olympic silver medalist, and one of Team GB’s biggest medal hopes at Rio 2016 – was facing a two-year cycling ban for missing three ‘out-of-competition’ drugs tests this year, as required by UK Anti-Doping (“UKAD”).

Three strikes and you’re out.

On Monday, however, this ban was lifted – Armitstead had won her appeal over the first missed test, meaning that the records were altered to show she had only missed two UKAD tests, one below the threshold. She was let off the first offence, committed on 20 August 2015, as the drugs tester had failed to make reasonable attempts to locate Armitstead before declaring it a missed test. Curiously, in a way that aroused media suspicion, Armitstead did not challenge this incident’s designation as a missed test at the time; only after she had three strikes and faced a ban from cycling did she launch an appeal.

The second missed test was down to an administrative failure on her part: UKAD had planned only to check her submitted ‘Whereabouts’ time slot was correct, not to test her. The third missed test was also a ‘Whereabouts’ failure, though Armitstead claims that traumatic family circumstances had to take priority over keeping UKAD updated as to her location.

A closer look at UKAD’s ‘Whereabouts’ system shows just how organised athletes must be, designating a 60-minute time slot outlining their location and accommodation on every day of the year so that UKAD can test them without advanced warning. Though this sounds restrictive, having to plan heavily must be nothing new for elite athletes. Furthermore, it is easy for athletes to update their location and time by text, online or by an app if plans change, up to one minute before the specified time slot.

Nonetheless, this still seems like a great organisational feat with the potential for mistakes to occur. It thus seems fair to go against the trend and assume that Armitstead is innocent, particularly when it is recognised that it is the International Olympics Committee in charge of testing Armitstead for the Olympics, not UKAD.

Indeed, it seems to have been forgotten that UKAD’s ‘out-of-competition’ testing is not the only drugs testing that athletes have and that Armitstead has tested negative in 16 drugs tests this year including one on the day after her first missed UKAD test.

Just like sprinter Christine Ohuruogu (the only one female athlete ever to have been sanctioned for three missed tests despite having passed drugs tests nine days before, and three days after, her violation), Armitstead has proved in competition tests that she is a clean athlete. This surely implies that the offences of both women were not part of deliberate attempts to avoid ‘out-of-competition’ testing, but simple administrative errors.

The fact that minor administrative errors can be equated to the very serious offence of doping shows the flaws in UKAD’s system. The ‘Whereabouts’ monitoring seems especially difficult to manage, favouring athletes of sports with richer governing bodies that can employ teams dedicated to the meeting the athlete’s ‘Whereabouts’ obligations. The UKAD’s noble intent of being able to carry out spot tests whenever, wherever, needs some more practical thinking.

However, in the current climate, where doping offences are being unveiled weekly (often on a massive scale), suspicion is rife. Indeed, it is hard to bypass elements of Armitstead’s case that have sparked doubt in the minds of the public. For one thing, every other British athlete manages to comply with the system effectively: only five other British athletes are currently on two missed tests and only Ohuruogu has ever been sanctioned for three missed tests. Indeed, with such a harsh penalty involved, it is almost unbelievable that Armitstead would let mere administrative errors potentially ruin her career.

Yet it is concerning that this whole sorry affair will mean – despite Armitstead passing 16 tests this year – her name will forever be tainted. Many of those condemning her have failed to investigate the situation further and are instead quick to accuse her of foul play. For years to come, a vague air of suspicion and doubt will hang around her name and define her reputation. Armitstead will be continuously associated with doping, despite never testing positive for an illegal substance.

With so many drugs cheats out there, we must honour and respect our clean athletes and not taint their reputations with undue suspicion.

The situation is equally as troubling when examining it from another perspective: as if Armitstead were Russian. Indeed, she is fortunate that the British media only covered her penalty after it had been lifted and that she has been afforded the opportunity to present counter-arguments to all of those who condemn her. Indeed, although Armitstead will have to face suspicion over her missed tests, any doubt surrounding the veracity of her claims will be – relatively speaking – of a minimal extent due to the countrywide doping situation and her nationality.

But for Russian athletes, their countrywide doping situation and their nationality means that they get the worst of both worlds. Already, a negative stereotype of Russians within the British media has taken away the voice from innocent Russian athletes who, like Armistead, have passed all of their drugs tests but are caught up in the stream of suspicion.

The current doping situation already seems to be a world of double standards with each sport deciding individually if Russians can compete. Discrepancies exist too in the sense all Russians who have ever doped are banned, yet drugs cheats from other countries who have served their sentences are allowed to compete in Rio. The last thing that was needed was the media’s mixed messages inculcating baseless misgivings and stereotypes.

What is needed here is clarity. Reputations, regardless of nationality, cannot be tainted because of vague suspicion. Doubt towards athletes must be founded in fact. This culture of blame has to stop.

Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?