Team Sky’s slapdashery stuffs more mysteries in metaphorical jiffy bag | Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">A jiffy bag delivered to Bradley Wiggins in 2011 is at the centre of the Team Sky conundrum.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images</span>
A jiffy bag delivered to Bradley Wiggins in 2011 is at the centre of the Team Sky conundrum. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Time for another shot of Team Sky, whose functionaries seemingly will not rest until no human can utter the phrase “marginal gains” without deploying sarcastic air quotes. Many will have found themselves at this point some time ago.

The relentless curiosity always said to have underpinned the culture at Team Sky and British Cycling is revealed as more selective by the week. Each new revelation of slapdashery is harder and harder to square with the old fables about painting the floors white and getting a surgeon to speak to riders about how to wash their hands and so on. It’s all very well eliminating every speck of dust, but eliminating medical records is less easy to get behind. People are going to wonder which elimination was the more significant in all those victories. And, indeed, which washing of hands.

The latest eyebrow-raiser comes courtesy of Team Sky’s doctor Richard Freeman, who has now offered a written statement to the culture, media and sport committee, in which he inadequately explains why there aren’t any proper medical records relating to Bradley Wiggins in 2011. “In 2011 neither team [British Cycling nor Team Sky] had a written medicines-management policy or stock-taking system,” states Freeman. “This was not uncommon practice in sports teams at that time.”

Can this really be the case? Dr Freeman came to Team Sky from Bolton Wanderers, who were always said to have a state-of-the-art medical set-up back then. Was that the real state of said art? If so, the cliche that we don’t know the half of medicinal treatments in football should really be updated. We don’t know the thousandth of it.

Putting aside Dr Freeman’s decision to tar others with Team Sky’s brush, let’s turn to his explanation for why the women’s road coach was charged with travelling from Manchester to Geneva, via an overnight in London, then driving on to France with a jiffy bag Team Sky maintain contained the decongestant fluimucil. This, apparently, was down to “immense time pressure”. And yet, given that delivery took four days from pick‑up to drop‑off, they could have made a rather more than marginal time gain had Freeman or someone else in situ purchased it over the counter in nearby Switzerland.

So on the conundrum goes. It feels apt to conclude this item by handing over to Simon Cope, the courier in question, who didn’t ask what was in the jiffy bag that he carefully transported all the way to Switzerland. Would you believe that Simon is still not getting to the bottom of mysteries to this very day? Asked last week why Team Wiggins, which he now manages, had been excluded from next month’s Tour de Yorkshire, he replied: “It’s very disappointing and it is very much a surprise. I don’t really know why. It’s a very strange one.”

Well quite. In fact, I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the bottom of it, even if we painted the floor beneath it white. Let us regard it as eternally sealed in the metaphorical jiffy bag, and await further revelations.

The IOC’s gift of freedom

At the end of a tour so disastrously unsuccessful it is presumed to usher in enforced retirement, Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins asks a rhetorical question: “It’s a freeing up, innit? It’s all this free time.” “Suddenly time is so elastic,” agrees his bandmate Derek Smalls. “It’s a gift. A gift of freedom.”

I can’t help feeling this flair for euphemism is shared by the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, whose big September reveal of the 2024 Olympic host city is losing suspense by the week. Following Budapest’s decision last month to withdraw from consideration, the IOC now has just Paris and Los Angeles to decide between. Bach has dropped increasingly strong hints that he will also break with precedent and announce the 2028 hosts at the same time, presumably to lock in the only two cities on the planet currently crackers enough to want to stage his event. You can hardly blame everywhere else for the reticence – the IOC offers host cities less then half the percentage of TV revenue that it did a couple of decades ago, while one study found that cities’ Olympic budgets overrun by far bigger percentages than other megaprojects. “The Games overrun with 100% consistency,” this stated, with that overrun averaging 179%.

Alas, this is not the greatest of negotiating positions. Clearly realising that it is they who are doing the IOC a favour, and not the other way around, Paris has said that it is not interested in hosting 2028, only 2024. LA has yet to go quite this far, and may well accept being fobbed off with 2028 with the right inducements. Then again, it may regard the fact that it was the sole bidder for the 1984 Games as entitling them to a bit of loyalty payback from the IOC. Should they indeed refuse to be finessed, Mr Bach will find himself in rather a pickle.

Even now, it’s a struggle not to giggle at the manner in which he chooses to characterise his predicament. “This,” he declares, “is a position you like to be in.” Not if you’re playing with a full set of Olympic rings, it isn’t. Still, Bach has established a “working group” – that classic shit‑creek move – to decide how to maximise his lack of paddle. Or as he puts it: “We are in a comfortable situation. Now it will be up to the working group how to best explore, how to best exploit, the positive situation. We should not miss the opportunity to explore this opportunity.”

And for our part, we should not miss the opportunity to congratulate Bach on the opportunity to explore this opportunity. It is, after all, a great freeing up – a gift of freedom.

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