How much longer can Team Sky continue after latest inquiry?
Organisation’s original aim of ‘winning clean’ deemed incredible, and inconsistent
Bradley Wiggins in the yellow jersey in the Tour de France in 2012. Photograph: Reuters
It is only three months since we were last asking whether the latest crisis would signal the end for Team Sky. Now here we are again, wondering how much longer this organisation can continue when every scintilla of credibility they had as a completely clean team has been decimated by another inquiry.
This time it was the government’s department of digital, culture, media and sport select committee drawing the damning conclusion that Team Sky cynically abused the anti-doping system to allow the administration of performance-enhancing drugs. The report does not even touch on the crisis facing its star rider, Chris Froome, still trying to clear his name after the Guardian and the French newspaper Le Monde revealed in December he had failed a drug test. Froome denies wrongdoing and investigations continue.
That adverse finding at the Vuelta a España last year could yet result in an anti-doping rule violation. This report has not found any evidence the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) code was broken but lands several potentially fatal blows. For the first time publicly it is suggested Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins used the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone not to treat a legitimate medical condition but to improve their chances of winning.
It was already known, courtesy of the Russian hackers Fancy Bears, that Wiggins was given injections of triamcinolone before he competed in three of cycling’s grand tours. But the suggestion that the abuse of that drug was possibly widespread in the team is grave. Most damagingly they say the team, led by Dave Brailsford, obtained therapeutic use exemption forms – effectively a doctor’s note – to allow triamcinolone to be used. The MPs who led the inquiry believe Wiggins used it to improve his power-to-weight ratio in the run-up to the Tour de France in 2012. They even allege that the performance-enhancing benefits would have continued during the race, which he went on to win amid euphoric scenes on Paris’s Champs Élysées.
That was Team Sky’s first victory in the race, during what was only their third season in operation. The team was created in 2010 with an ethos of total transparency and zero tolerance for drugs, an antidote to the two decades of cheating and doping in the peloton that had gone before. But this report, based on evidence given by Brailsford and other witnesses during an inquiry that lasted more than two years, questions whether that ethos stood the test of time. It draws the conclusion that it has not.
The report reads: “Team Sky’s statements that coaches and team managers are largely unaware of the methods used by the medical staff to prepare pro cyclists for major races seem incredible, and inconsistent with their original aim of ‘winning clean’ and maintaining the highest ethical standards within their sport.
“How can David Brailsford ensure that his team is performing to his requirements if he does not know and cannot tell what drugs the doctors are giving the riders? Brailsford must take responsibility for these failures, the regime under which Team Sky riders trained and competed, and the damaging scepticism about the legitimacy of his team’s performance and accomplishments.”
Team Sky have wholeheartedly rejected any suggestion of widespread triamcinolone use by their riders ahead of the 2012 Tour de France. But that defence cannot be supported by hard evidence because they admit themselves that thorough medical records were not kept. Those of Wiggins, they claim, were lost when the laptop of the Team Sky medic Dr Richard Freeman was lost in Greece in 2014.
Wiggins said on Sunday night he “strongly refutes the claim that any drug was used without medical need”.
Brailsford previously claimed Freeman had ordered the legal decongestant fluimucil to be delivered to Wiggins at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné, not triamcinolone as had been alleged. But Freeman refused, citing legal advice, to back up that claim when contacted by the DCMS, which stated it had received new evidence from a witness that the infamous Jiffy bag package was in fact triamcinolone.
For a team that at its inception invited certain journalists to be embedded with them at races in a bid to prove they were completely open and clean, there is at best a lack of clarity over what was in the package. In a 2011 Guardian interview, Brailsford said: “There’s no place for drugs in the sport and we like to think that we’re at the forefront of trying to promote clean cycling. That philosophy will always stay. If we thought it wasn’t possible, then I’d be out.”
The report suggests he may have strayed from that philosophy as a thirst for victory increased. It is not just Team Sky’s reputation that is damaged by this report. Their closeness with British Cycling, with whom they used to share medics, facilities and a headquarters – as well as riders – means the national governing body is also tainted.
Britain returned from the track cycling world championships in the Netherlands on Sunday with six medals for their young team. But once again controversy and chaos are set to overshadow achievements in the saddle.