Team Sky/MPs stand off high in tension as answers teased out
Dave Brailsford eventually said that contents of mysterious bag was a decongestant
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Team Sky director Dave Brailsford answering questions at a Commons select committee in London on December 29th, 2016.
For three hours in the Thatcher room in Portcullis House the air had all the ease of a dentist’s surgery as the committee for culture, media and sport slowly prised, like recalcitrant teeth, a series of facts from Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton and the British Cycling chairman, Bob Howden, about the most infamous Jiffy bag in cycling, an envelope delivered to Dr Richard Freeman at the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2011 that has come to symbolise Team Sky and British Cycling’s lack of transparency.
The governing body and its offshoot professional team live by process; the session was one of aggregation, not of marginal gains, of little nuggets of information which might have seemed more credible if presented in a timely style 10 weeks earlier. It had its lighter moments, mostly inspired by the SNP MP John Nicolson, who questioned with the air of a man who could turn ordering a pint of heavy in his local in East Dumbartonshire into a piece of street theatre, but mostly it was a litany of process that was far from light.
The collective line – that Jiffy-gate was merely a cock-up amplified by medical confidentiality and good intention – suggested that British cycling as a whole still has questions to answer, although by the end the MPs seemed to have little idea what these might be. The Jiffy bag, Brailsford revealed two hours in, contained the decongestant Fluimucil. It had been taken out of the British Cycling pharmacy by the physio Phil Burt, Sutton conceded, following up with some tense lexical byplay over whether Sutton had “authorised” its delivery, or merely “arranged it”.
A charitable mind might feel there could be a rational explanation for giving the Fluimucil to Cope to carry through airport security not knowing what it was; if there is, it will have lost any sense in the past 10 weeks of obfuscation, and the morning did nothing to repair Brailsford’s credibilty.
The medicine was – according to Sutton – “administered” by Freeman to Bradley Wiggins, who, Sutton conceded, might have had some kind of breathing difficulty or long-term medical problem. Sutton had, he insisted, no notion what the doctor might be giving his star rider, to whom he has been close since 2004. He left all that medical stuff to the doctors, which seemed surprising for a man known as the most hands-on coach in the cycling world.
Since the Festina scandal of 1998 cycling has known its great confessional moments, from Richard Virenque’s whispered admission to judge Daniel Delegove in a Lille courtroom, that, yes, he had used EPO, to Lance Armstrong’s tight-lipped series of affirmatives faced by Oprah Winfrey.
This was not among them, either in form or in content. After months of intense interest and the clear sense of frustration among the MPs that neither Howden nor Sutton would say what was in the Jiffy bag, there was a palpable sense of bathos when Brailsford almost muttered to the committee chair, Damian Collins, that it had contained a mere decongestant.
It was this innocuous substance that had inspired Brailsford to induce the UK Anti-Doping Agency to launch an inquiry into his sport and his team, and had led him to put out a version of events in which Cope had been to the Alps to meet the GB cyclist Emma Pooley. “I was too hasty in releasing that information,” he conceded, insisting that the “short-term difficulty” and bad press was an appropriate price to be paid for “getting to the truth”.
There was another truth that the MPs might reflect on: in their preoccupation with the bag’s contents – was it pedals? was it shoes? they speculated – they never got to grips with the bigger question of whether the therapeutic use exemptions issued to Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone had been appropriate. It was reiterated that the TUEs had been legal but the core question of whether they matched the spirit in which Team Sky had been founded was merely skirted.
Howden, accompanied by the chair of British Cycling’s Ethics Commission, Dr Gilbert George, was the MPs hors d’oeuvre and appeared to know little but with the best of intentions and the utmost attention to process. By the end his governing body – in search of a chief executive and a performance director, lest it be forgotten – had been through the mill, summed up by a late question from Nigel Huddleston, Conservative MP for Mid-Worcestershire. Was it not “extraordinary”, Huddleston asked, that the truth about the package had needed to reach the select committee before it finally emerged, and “what did it say about the transparency, communication and governance of UK cycling?” Brailsford’s initial response that he was glad to be there, sharing information, seemed barely adequate.
The Team Sky head closed the session by restating that transparency would become the hallmark of his squad’s approach and in that spirit they would “invite anyone to come and spend time and scrutinise us”. Brailsford has issued this invitation before – notably in 2013 when Chris Froome’s critics were told to come to Manchester and ask questions – and once again it is open house it seems, although anyone considering flying out to join Sky should keep one thing in mind: if asked to bring a Jiffy bag, have a good look inside.