TUEs may have been the tip of an iceberg at Team Sky

William Fotheringham
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">The short-term effects of the DCMS report, for Team Sky at least, will depend in part on whether they believe Sir Dave Brailsford’s position remains tenable.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images</span>
The short-term effects of the DCMS report, for Team Sky at least, will depend in part on whether they believe Sir Dave Brailsford’s position remains tenable. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The last 20 years in cycling have shown that it is bodies outside the sport that make the biggest strides in anti-doping, exposing the most carefully hidden practices, creating the greatest media impact, and producing the most significant long-term outcomes.

I was reminded of that only recently, when a trip to France included an overnight stay in Rue du Dronckaert, Neuville en Ferrain, where customs officers seized the Festina team’s drugs, which led to the exposure of systematic doping at the highest level of the sport.

It would be facile to talk of the department for digital, culture, media and sport report published on Sunday night as the new Festina scandal, or a new Operation Puerto. Better to recall Tolstoy’s maxim that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Every doping episode has its own twists but one conclusion by the DCMS does give this one a new dimension: the suggestion Sir Bradley Wiggins’s use of triamcinolone through therapeutic use exemptions may have been the tip of an iceberg of more systematic use within Team Sky.

Paragraph 110 states the committee believes triamcinolone was being used to prepare Wiggins – and possibly other riders – for the Tour de France. They do so based on a single well-placed source.

Team Sky in a statement that the report “makes the serious claim that medication has been used by the team to enhance performance. We strongly refute this. The report also includes an allegation of widespread triamcinolone use by Team Sky riders ahead of the 2012 Tour de France. Again, we strongly refute this allegation. We are surprised and disappointed the committee has chosen to present an anonymous and potentially malicious claim in this way, without presenting any evidence or giving us an opportunity to respond. This is unfair both to the team and to the riders in question.”

Where has this report come from? It is published by the digital, culture, media and sport select committee which opened an inquiry in August 2015. 

What has it found? The most damning findings concern Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky. For the first time it is publicly alleged that Wiggins, and possibly support riders, were given the usually banned triamcinolone not to treat a legitimate medical condition, as Team Sky claim, but to help with preparations for the 2012 Tour de France. Wiggins “strongly refutes the claim any drug was used without medical need”. 

What are the other revelations? The inquiry claims a witness came forward with further evidence that a Jiffy bag delivered to Wiggins at a race in 2011 contained the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone and not the legal decongestant Fluimucil, as claimed by Team Sky. Wiggins did not have a therapeutic use exemption at that time.

Does it mean the UK Anti-Doping investigation will be reopened Not at the moment. Ukad says it is not following any new lines of inquiry following the closure of the investigation last November.

What does it mean for Team Sky? It is another blow to the reputation of the most successful road cycling team in the world. They are under siege after Chris Froome failed a drug test last year – he denies wrongdoing.

What does it mean for Wiggins? The Tour winner and Olympic champion is retired from cycling but it could have a damaging effect on his legacy. Martha Kelner

In written evidence Sky had stated: “We would only ever allow triamcinolone to be provided as a legitimate and justified medical treatment in accordance with the applicable anti-doping rules.”

Wiggins said on Sunday night he finds it “so sad that accusations can be made, where people can be accused of things they have never done which are then regarded as facts” and that he “strongly refutes the claim that any drug was used without medical need”.

In September 2016 I asked Wiggins if he had injections of triamcinolone out of competition. He replied: “No, I’d test positive. If it was in my urine [without a TUE] I’d go positive for cortisone. No way. Liability stops with me. Until I’ve got certification, authorisation from Wada and the UCI that I can take that, nothing was ever administered into my body without that.”

The core issue remains the one the head of UK Anti-Doping, Nicole Sapstead, highlighted when she revealed last March that Sky had ordered far more triamcinolone from 2010-13 than was needed for Wiggins’s three TUEs.

The team have not accounted for it (their written statement accounts for no more than 10 doses), nor has their doctor at the time, Richard Freeman, who, the team claimed, had used it in his private practice. In addition to Wiggins’s medical records, which are missing, so too are some records for other, unnamed riders within the team. Team Sky’s written evidence document number BDA0015 states: “It is correct that a small part of the notes for a few riders (including Bradley Wiggins) were not uploaded by Dr Freeman.”

That remains the gaping hole in the story, which is why last June I asked the then three times Tour de France winner Chris Froome whether he had been offered or administered any of the 55 doses. He stated categorically he had not, adding: “I can only speak about my experience in the team. It hasn’t been my experience that triamcinolone has been handed around freely as has been suggested.”

What is it? A powerful corticosteroid used to treat inflammation of many kinds, from skin conditions such as severe eczema to inflammatory arthritis, pollen allergies – the use for which Bradley Wiggins obtained permission – and musculo-skeletal injuries. Most commonly marketed under the trade name Kenalog, it is taken as a nasal spray, cream or by injection. 

How can it be abused in sport? Among its side-effects, triamcinolone is anecdotally reported to quickly and significantly reduce body fat mass, to affect the nervous system by giving a feeling of euphoria and to lessen muscle pain. All explain the draw for athletes. The reformed doper David Millar said it was the most potent substance he used.

Is it new? The abuse of cortisone in cycling goes back at least to the 1970s. Lance Armstrong tested positive for triamcinolone during the 1999 Tour de France but got off after a doctor’s note was concocted after the test.

Why is it not banned? Some ways of taking triamcinolone are legal (for instance skin ointment), some are banned in competition – systemic routes such as injections – and within a certain time window unless a therapeutic use exemption is provided showing a medical need. 

What are anti-doping authorities doing to counter it? 

There are constant calls for it to be banned and Wada has been considering such a move. The Movement for Credible Cycling has a strict policy on cortisone use and testing, keeping riders “inactive” if they show signs they may have used corticosteroids but membership is voluntary.  William Fotheringham

The short-term effects of the DCMS report, for Team Sky at least, will depend on how robust the high-ups among the sponsors feel and whether they believe Sir Dave Brailsford’s position remains tenable. Team Sky’s credibility was shot a year ago after Sapstead’s revelation. If they all collectively tough it out as they have done for almost 18 months, that would be understandable: there is nowhere else to go. They have won race after race already this season, to a remarkable – if understandable – lack of fanfare.

In the longer term the DCMS report should lead to change. The Fancy Bears revelations led to a renewed focus on corticosteroid use, renewed calls for cortisone and its derivatives to be banned, a fresh focus on the philosophy of the Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Credible with its stricter rules on cortisone use and tests. There was fresh scrutiny of TUEs.

The DCMS’s conclusions are utterly depressing for the many – myself included – who hoped Team Sky could represent a completely fresh start for the sport after Operation Puerto and Lance Armstrong’s retirement. That optimism was misplaced. But what the report does is place a definitive marker in the middle of that infamous grey area where ethics, medical necessity, and performance enhancement rub shoulders, where you can stay within the letter of the rules but still cross an ethical line.

Future chroniclers of doping in cycling may well describe a messy period after “heavy” substances such as EPO went out of vogue: substances on that borderline, in those grey areas, readily available and commonly used medicines – tramadol and triamcinolone are just two – where what some riders took and when and how depended partly on the black or white of the rules, but more on where an ethical line was drawn by team management, individual doctors and the riders themselves. How ironic: Team Sky’s contribution to that narrative may not be as role models but as an example of practices that should be avoided, whether within the rules or not.

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