The Julie Miller Scandal

The curious case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller, who is accused of repeatedly cheating in races she seemed to have won

The curious case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller, who, after the 2015 running of Ironman Canada in Whistler was accused of repeatedly cheating in races she seemed to have won, has been well documented. So much so, in fact, that The New York Times allocated sufficient page space for several articles on the topic. The triathlon forum, as well as the Vancouver Sun and many other sporting publications around the world picked up the story with a strong inclination it would be the catalyst for some ‘entertaining’ reader comments.

It seemed, at face value, like quite an innocuous story. By way of brief explanation, Miller repeatedly claimed her timing chip had fallen off the strap around her ankle during races - a very rare happening – but consensus is she was intentionally playing a part in this activity and not completing the full course. In fact, a long-standing Ironman race official, Keats McGonigal, said, “…in all my history, I’ve heard of timing straps falling off, but I’ve never seen a chip come off a strap while the strap stays on.”

Apparently, according to the NYT author Sarah Lyall, who investigated and wrote about the Miller case, readers of the esteemed newspaper initially quipped as to why it deserved such mention. But as the facts played out, the case became more and more interesting; publications were quick to print their stories, and many folk within the triathlete community – and beyond – spoke their minds with zest and without care of censorship.

But what is it about the Miller case that has catapulted the story toward sporting infamy? Cheating happens more than we know and care to admit, and unless it’s the big league like the Lance Armstrong saga it rarely merits anyone’s attention outside of small-scale whimperings and hearsay grievances.

On the very popular triathlon forum Slowtwitch, hundreds of posts reflected widespread outrage and utter indignation toward Miller. Many just could not believe the lengths to which she apparently went in order to ‘win’ the events she was claiming, including numerous long course triathlons and mountain bike races.

Dan Empfield, a highly respected stalwart of the global triathlon community and founder of the Slowtwitch forum, made comments to Lyall to the effect that fellow triathletes view cutting a course (deliberately failing to run, swim or bike the whole way, and then lying about it) as “the worst thing an athlete can do, far worse than doping.”

Worse than doping? Those three words - coming from such a key player in the sport of triathlon - hold immense weight. ‘Worse than doping’, really?

In a follow-up NYT article dated April 15, 2016, Lyall paraphrased Empfield in saying that “In their minds, what Miller was accused of doing was an affront to a sport for which many of them spend 20 or 30 hours a week training.” Many athletes took very strong offence to Miller’s purported behaviour.

The Miller case has polarised the small community of Squamish, North of Vancouver, where Miller lives, works and trains. According to Lyall, “Miller is considered an outgoing, upbeat person and a passionate sportswoman who has made competing central to her life”. But many residents and former training partners of Miller were reluctant to speak about the incident. “Residents of Squamish feared the wrath of Miller, who has presented herself as the victim of envy and cyberbullying and who has attacked her critics in very forceful terms,” said Lyall. Even people who feel sympathetic toward her said they did not want to be seen speaking publicly about a subject so raw.

Lyall goes on to comment that “she (Miller) has never offered a plausible explanation of what happened at Whistler or in any of the other races from which she’s been disqualified, other than to say that she completed all the courses fairly, did not cheat and does not understand why everyone is so intent on calling her a liar.”

On her Facebook account, which has since been closed, Miller wrote, “Ultimately, I and others close to me know my integrity, and that is what matters to me.”

Lyall adds that “she (Miller) presented herself as being surprised by all the attention and bruised and hurt by the questions about her integrity.” Miller commented that she did not want to engage with her critics because “whatever she did, she would be attacked.”

Empfield was also quoted by Lyall in the NYT article as saying that, “My readers think that doping is reprehensible, but that cutting the course is worse, almost incomprehensible…At least if you dope, you’re still trying to win the race by actually completing it.” He added, “They’re (triathletes) emotionally and financially invested in this sport and when someone cuts a course, they feel highly violated. From their point of view, it’s tearing at the fabric of trust required to have a sport at all.”

As a triathlete and writer, I have wrestled with this line of argument long and hard; over the course of numerous weeks, in fact. I err on the side of agreement with most Slowtwitch readers, but I confess that something doesn’t feel quite right about my half-hearted conclusions either. Is cutting a course and lying a more severe example of ‘tearing at the fabric of trust’ than intentionally ingesting illegal, banned substances to benefit oneself over others during (training and) racing? Maybe my thoughts are somehow swayed a touch by the enormity of substance abuse cases like that of Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson and hundreds of others across all sporting realms.

Assuming she is guilty, I for one am equal parts intrigued, surprised, and disgusted at the audacity of Julie Miller. How she could believe that she’d actually get away with course cutting in an era of uber-technology and a wall of smart phone cameras clicking all day long is beyond me.

Worse than doping, though? You be the judge.
Links to Sarah Lyall’s articles appearing in The New York Times

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