Jonathan Tiernan-Locke: Why his biological passport case should have remained confidential

Unless and until the UCI announces that Jonathan Tiernan-Locke was guilty of doping, it’s fair to say that he got a raw deal and deserves some sympathy in his ongoing biological passport anomaly story.

At the moment, nobody but the UCI and Tiernan-Locke needed to know about this. The first stages of a biological passport anomaly investigation should remain anonymous. Basically, the smart algorithims in Geneva at the (independent) Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU) have flagged up his test results and one expert – then another two – have had to study data and a background package of information and collectively decided that the anomalies in his blood chemistry require an explanation.

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At which point, the APMU informed the UCI that rider ‘634BX’ should be contacted and asked to provide an explanation for his freaky data. Note, that at no point does the APMU know who they are dealing with, all they have is numbers. The UCI then informs the rider – and only the rider – that he has 30 days to gather data and explain himself. Neither the team, nor the Federation nor any other national anti-doping agency are informed at this point. Because at this point, nothing has been proved and no judgement has been passed.

It turned out that rider ‘634BX’ was Sky pro Jon Tiernan-Locke and news that there were anomalies in his biological passport got out. David Walsh of the Sunday Times broke the story on Sunday 29 September, three days after Tiernan-Locke had pulled out of the GB road team in Florence, citing a lack of form. Jumping to a not very unlikely conclusion, it would suggest that JT-L received notice of his biopassport anomalies around the same time as he withdrew from the team.

At this point, there aren’t many people who really know how the news leaked or how the story unfolded. But let’s speculate wildly shall we? Experienced cycling journalist Walsh pressed Sky boss Dave Brailsford hard as to why JT-L had pulled out, Brailsford couldn’t risk lying to the team’s hitherto embedded journalist in case JT-L turned out to be guilty; Walsh, in turn, couldn’t sit on the story for fear of being called a Sky stooge, so he had to run the story. Walsh worked for a Sunday paper, so had no wriggle room and couldn’t sit on the story. Fresh in both men’s minds was the story of how Marin Cilic’s doping positive was covered up during Wimbledon, announced as a withdrawal through injury. How does that sound for a piece of wild speculation? Tiernan-Locke as an innocent (?) victim, caught in a perfect ethical storm, a private matter thrown into the public domain.

In some ways, it’s irrelevant how the news leaked. No matter what the outcome of the case following Tiernan-Locke’s explanation, he will be forever tainted in the eyes of some fans and media. Let’s assume he’s innocent, let’s imagine that his explanation for his passport anomalies satisfies the three APMU experts who then report back to the UCI and say that there’s ‘No case to answer.’

If that is the case then, under normal circumstances nobody, but nobody, would even have been aware that Tiernan-Locke had needed to explain anything (theoretically not even the experts at the APMU would have known whose data and defence they were studying, it’s still anonymised). It’s too late for that now though, the horse has well and truly bolted out of the digital stable. What if Tiernan-Locke does get a clean bill of health from the APMU? Who is going to repair Tiernan-Locke’s tattered reputation?

Of course, if Tiernan-Locke is found guilty, he’ll deserve what he gets, the same as any other blood doped rider. If he is innocent, he’ll be ‘tainted’. It’s like a cycling witch trial: he’s been strapped to the ducking stool and he can’t win from this point on. He floats: he’s a doper! He’s drowned: ah, too bad, he was clean. Like any rider, guilty or innocent in similar circumstances, Tiernan-Locke deserved anonymity and due process. He didn’t get it and future sympathy won’t be a substitute for a career.

Related links

Tiernan-Locke biological passport anomaly: former team issues statement

Tiernan-Locke’s biological passport under scrutiny