Comment: Team Sky stripped of all remaining credibility

Latest revelations leave general manager Dave Brailsford without a leg to stand on

This is another in a litany of failures of process in ensuring that Team Sky lived up to their publicly stated anti-doping stance from day one in early 2009, when the mission statement to win the Tour with a clean British rider was revealed to the world.

If December 19th, 2016 was the day that Dave Brailsford proved to be an emperor with no clothes, with his admission to the culture, media and sport committee that he had been over-enthusiastic in his explanation for Simon Cope's trip to the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2011, on March 1st, 2017 the committee stripped Team Sky and British Cycling of any remaining credibility.

The demolition agent was the lapidary Nicole Sapstead, head of UK Anti-Doping, who told the committee that it was impossible to back up Brailsford's assertion in December that the package delivered by Cope did indeed contain the decongestant Fluimucil. This was because of a lack of records of what the then Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman had administered to his athletes, and the products that had gone through the British Cycling medicine store in Manchester.

British Cycling and Freeman's record-keeping was "woeful", said one committee member. "There is no audit trail of what is going in and out of a comprehensive supply of medical products," agreed Sapstead, adding that British Cycling had "no excuse - just an acknowledgement that there was no policy and no records". Team Sky, she added, "did have a policy, just not everybody was adhering to it". Her inquiry did not cover how management at Sky and British Cycling - in essence Brailsford and Shane Sutton as the senior management team - had or had not kept tabs on this.

The General Medical Council’s views on British Cycling, Sky and Dr Freeman, may well provide a coda to this saga, because of breaches in their guidelines on record-keeping regarding prescription medicines, but the lack of records was, Sapstead said, odd. That was an understatement.


Damningly, she said of Team Sky that she would have “particularly” expected “a professional road cycling team that was founded on the premise of exhibiting that road racing could be conducted cleanly” to have records to back that up. Assuming there has been no systematic cover-up - something for which Sapstead said there was no evidence - that leads to a conclusion that is still disturbing: if Dr Freeman was operating without supervision, with no record of what he gave to the athletes, how can Brailsford claim that his procedures are robust?

This is another in a litany of failures of process in ensuring that Team Sky lived up to their publicly stated anti-doping stance from day one in early 2009, when the mission statement to win the Tour with a clean British rider was revealed to the world. It also made a nonsense of Shane Sutton’s assertions at the hearing in December that Sky was the cleanest team in the world and that British Cycling had “done everything by the book”.

There have been no positive drug tests, so according to the letter of the law the mission has been achieved, but there has been a persistent, gradual erosion of the team's credibility. An internal anti-doping policy was jettisoned before the team even hit the road. A zero-tolerance policy glaringly failed to weed out riders and staff with doping pasts, the recruitment of Dr Geert Leinders - later found to have been involved in doping at the Rabobank team - went squarely against Sky's policy of steering clear of doctors from a cycling milieu. The recruitment of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke - later found positive for blood doping before he joined Sky - led to an overhaul of their process of vetting riders, while there remain unanswered questions about the use of the legal painkiller tramadol, not mentioned once at the hearing but still a live issue, and the administration of the corticosteroid triamcinolone.

This practice was first revealed by the Fancy Bears leaks of Bradley Wiggins’s therapeutic use exemptions to use the medicine to treat pollen allergies before three major Tours in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and it could well prove to be the biggest issue thrown up by Sapstead’s inquiry team.

That is because of the amount of the corticosteroid - trade name Kenalog - ordered by British Cycling and Team Sky and, by implication, where it all went. Sapstead was clear on this. The quantity of triamcinolone ordered was “far more” than Wiggins would have required for his three injections: “You would think there was an excessive amount of triamcinolone being ordered for one person or quite a few people had a very similar problem.”

In the absence of a clear audit of which riders had been given what, she added, her team at Ukad would have to go into individual medical records to establish to which riders it had been administered and whether that use was justified. The interview given by Wiggins to the Guardian about Fancy Bears in September 2016 adds little light; he stated that he had not been given it out of competition, but later conceded that he had been given an injection in Leeds for a knee injury in 2013.

The relentless exposure of Sky's credibility gaps means the team will struggle for answers when the media spotlight hits them in July at the Tour de France. The questions may be directed - perhaps unfairly - at Chris Froome as an individual, for all that there is no evidence of anything untoward in his three Tour wins. The trouble is that men such as Brailsford, who for six years have stated that people should believe in their ways of working and who will be repeating that this summer, no longer have a leg to stand on. Guardian Service