Julie Miller, the Canadian age group triathlete whose race performances were the subject of intense speculation and analysis on the Slowtwitch Reader Forum in August and September, 2015, was the subject of a long form expose in the New York Times today.
The article, written by Sarah Lyall, is entitled Swim. Bike. Cheat? It runs 5,700 words and details the allegations of course cutting against Ms. Miller and the angst caused in the greater triathlon community as well as in Ms. Miller's hometown of Squamish, BC. Recounted is the painstaking forensic work that uncovered apparent irregularities in Ms. Miller's race behavior.
Ms. Lyall traveled to Squamish, British Columbia, Canada, and interviewed many in that town. She went to Ms. Miller's house and mentioned, “a brief conversation at the front door of her house in Squamish.”
The author used “troubling” to describe the disconnect between the accomplished and well-respected Ms. Miller and the alter ego that must exist if the allegations of serial course cutting are true. It troubles me too. I can't square the circle and wonder whether the behavior, if true and if premeditated, is abhorrent? Or is it's best understood using some other terms?
Yes there is a hierarchy of bad acts in triathlon. Littering, abandonment of equipment, urinating during a race somewhere other than in a portable toilet, these are unfortunate but they are not base.
Cheating purposely takes it up a level. Once cheating becomes premeditated, it becomes something worse yet. Very obvious drafting? Such a person really shouldn't be welcome in the sport. Altering one's physiology through doping? Now you're scraping the bottom of the barrel. If I had to choose I'd probably say that mechanical doping is worse than biological doping. Now we're splitting hairs and I wouldn't blame anyone who ranks these bad acts in a different order.
I've seen two kinds of cheating in triathlon: opportunistic and premeditated. Opportunistic cheating occurs when the situation arises. These are split second decisions; no time to deliberate. I'm reminded of Vincenzo Nibali hanging onto the car window in the Tour of Spain last year. This is bad, but it's a serious error in judgment and wouldn't, I hope, be the action chosen by somebody with the luxury of time and forethought.
Premeditated cheating, that's a different animal entirely and we'll get to that in a moment.
All of these are bad, because they tear at the fabric of the social contract. Fair play requires us to bind ourselves rather than to simply not get caught. Self-policing is mandatory but the gold standard is for there not to be the need. We shouldn't have to gird ourselves against the urge to dope or to cut a course.
What bothers me about premeditated course cutting is that such an act has no attachment to any part of the mechanics of sport. Is it a kind of limited weakness that lives tightly inside of the circle of competition? Can a person be kind, thoughtful, empathetic, loving, helpful, relatively strong and healthy in other areas of his or her life, but without ballast in this one area? I hope so. I think so.
I can't speak with any authority about Julie Miller. I don't know what she did or what she thought. All I know is that the evidence arguing that she did not complete prescribed courses is compelling.
Setting Ms. Miller's case aside and commenting in the abstract, it is hard for me to empathize with a premeditated course cutter. I'm not without pity or forgiveness. It's that I cannot wrap my head around the act. I can imagine the motivation for doping. Not this.
What I'm afraid of is, are we yelling at the drunk? At the food addict? The self-harmer? If there is validity in the view that certain behaviors are illnesses rather than sins, how can you yell and be mad at someone with an illness? Yes, you have to protect yourself against the drunk driver. But do you do any good when you excoriate the person?
What ties me up is that I don't want to be or seem presumptuous or authoritative or insulting about a behavior I don't understand. I am entirely ignorant on this subject, but I haven't found anyone who isn't. Because the course cutters will not wait for me to backfill with judgment and knowledge, I like you have to deal inexpertly with this "troubling" occurrence in our sport.