At the Olympics it is not only, as the cliché has it, the eyes of the world that are on competitors but the ears and dictaphones of the media too. To the athletes' consternation, the general reader, viewer and reporter tend to be less interested in the mechanics of some sports than the people involved, and if there is a row to be had, then it is a bone that will be gnawed away at by the dogs of journalistic war.
So when the Great Britain women's cycle road race team were paraded at their swish Surrey country club yesterday, the spat between two of the quartet at the world championships last September was always going to be raised at some point. What happened was that Lizzie Armitstead, designated leader at the time, was caught up in a crash on the last lap, at which point Nicole Cooke, the reigning Olympic champion, made the instantaneous decision to sprint on ahead rather than helping her team-mate back into the race. She missed out on a medal, just, finishing fourth with Armitstead recovering to take seventh place but then giving vent to a rant.
Cooke, she said, rode "for herself – I've never seen her work for a team-mate". Armitstead also made her feelings known in what must have been an uncomfortable team meeting and later insisted she was glad to have done so because "it's been an unspoken situation for too long, and it needed to be out there". She added: "Someone needed to be honest about what was going on and why we didn't win a medal when we were capable of doing it. I was really disappointed. I had support in that meeting. It was a unanimous decision that Nicole didn't do her job properly." Cooke's point was that she rode according to instructions and had nothing to be ashamed of.
When the question was raised after a couple of gentle looseners yesterday, Cooke, from Swansea, smiled a weak smile and was happy this time to let the grittier, younger Yorkshirewoman take the lead. "I think maybe the media think they have more of an impact on us than they actually do," Armitstead said. Ouch. "Of course it was said, but time and time and time again we've said we're over it. It really isn't about you guys writing in the papers, it's about us as a team coming through it. We have already proved within team meetings that we are a team, so it's not a matter of proving ourselves to anybody really."
Lucy Martin, the least experienced member of the quartet, has been assigned as Armitstead's official minder for Sunday's 140-kilometre race – starting and finishing in the Mall – but she clearly felt here that her charge was more than capable of speaking for herself. The fourth team member, Cambridge graduate Emma Pooley, chipped in with, "I don't read any of the media so I don't know what you write."
The coach is Chris Newton, a personable Teessider, who took over after the world championships and now insists that all is well within the camp and that this particular team would not have been selected if that was not the case. He nevertheless faces a tricky decision in picking between Cooke and Armitstead as team leader and is understandably equivocal at present: "We don't want to leave it to one rider. They should all be there [together] and they'll have shared responsibility. If it came down to a sprint, Lizzie's the leader, put it that way. But Lizzie is not in the same league at the moment as Cav [Mark Cavendish] is in the men's road race. We've got Nicole, a former champion, to use and she'll be given rein to attack and ride aggressively and if that succeeds, we're very happy for Nicole to go for glory and go for a win.
"I stand for GB and we're looking for results and whether it be Lizzie or Nicole, we have them as the two main riders."
Coming in to pick up pieces after the September spat, he now says: "They're athletes at the end of the day. While the race is going on they think rationally but as soon as they finish they're spent, emotionally drained and all these emotions come flooding out. If they could just bite their tongue, it wouldn't be said [but] after that, it's case closed. Both Lizzie and Nicole have got drive and passion and want to be successful. Once Lizzie was stuck in the crash, and the race is going, you've got to act on instinct and the instinct for an athlete is to go for it. The girls have had a chance for everything to go through the press, settle down, they're team-mates and everything's fine."
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