It cannot have escaped most people’s attention that there is another storm in the world of cycling. Many believed that after the Lance Armstrong “era” those days were behind the sport and that any future winners would be “clean”. Prior to Armstrong cycling had long had question marks hanging over it, with many legends of the past the subject of suspicion, although it’s fair to say that Lance took it to the next level with an almost Mafia-like control keeping it as quiet as possible. So when it all blew up, it exploded and many thought that was the last of it. Indeed, success at the Tour de France from 2012 onwards and the continued cycling success during the London Olympics led to a lot of new people, possibly naively and particularly Brits, being attracted to the sport because of the (at least publicly facing) stance that Team Sky took against cheating. Famously (maybe now infamously) when Team Sky were formed Sir David Brailsford, then just plain “Dave”, claimed they would win the Tour clean with a British rider within 5 years.
Fast forward and we have tales of mystery jiffy bags, asthma and triamcinolon, asthma and salbutamol, disappearing medical records and finally a report from the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that has lit the blue touch paper again.
From the news headlines you’d think the report was just about cycling. It isn’t. The title is Combatting doping in sport. It is 52 pages long of which cycling is covered in pages 19 to 32. If you want to read it you can find it here
There are several reactions I have noted to both the press stories and the report itself.
- Team Sky, Wiggins and Froome are cheats and should be banned
- Team Sky, Wiggins and Froome haven’t broken the rules per se but ethically and morally they are cheats
- Team Sky, Wiggins and Froome haven’t broken the rules, they pushed the line which everyone does in sport – plus everyone else is quietly doing it too
- Any combination of the above whether you like or dislike Team Sky, Wiggins and/or Froome!
Several of my non-cycling friends have asked me what I think and the answer is, like most things, complicated.
Firstly, and the deliberate reason I titled this post “Cheating in Sport”, is that cheating is rife in every single sport. Every single one. For example, in every single Premier League Football match you will see one or more of the following
- Diving to gain an advantage like a penalty
- Feigning injury to get an opponent sanctioned in some way
- Moving a freekick/throw-in forward to gain an advantage
- Claiming a throw-in/corner/goal-kick even though the player clearly knows it isn’t his
Some people say it is gamesmanship, or pushing the line but it isn’t cheating. Okay, what about injections? Quite often a star footballer will “play through the pain” in a key match by having painkilling injections and they will receive plaudits for it. The difference between that and a cyclist taking asthma medication is what, exactly, other than context?
But taking drugs to enhance performance is different right? I suppose it is. By the way, here are some figures from the UK Anti-Doping agency (UKAD) website. They are numbers of UK athletes currently banned for doping offences
- Cycling – 7
- Football – 3
- Rugby Union – 17
- Rugby League – 12
- Weight & Powerlifting – 7
- Athletics – 4
It seems to me rugby has a bigger problem than cycling but nevertheless cheating is widespread. What is a fact as I write this, is that none of those 7 cyclists is either Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome.
The new head of the UCI, David Lappartient, has come out and said taking anything to enhance performance is cheating. Er, I best put that strong espresso down then because caffeine is one of the few things scientifically proven to enhance athletic performance. Even as a mediocre amateur racer I am bound by the UKAD rules that say I am responsible for what goes in my body and can be tested at any race against a set of banned substances. But I do drink coffee. Am I pushing the line? Am I cheating? What about creatine for footballers, athletes and rugby players? Beta-alanine? Bicarbonate of soda? None are on the banned list but are routinely taken by athletes to enhance their performance (not me, I might add – I stick to the coffee).
Froome may yet get banned and people will continue to question the intent behind the use of medication by both him and Wiggins. Was it for medical reasons or was it to enhance performance? Very few people know the actual truth and it is a massive grey area – the area of intent. So in the end most of what you read on the subject, here and elsewhere, will come down to opinions.
For what it’s worth, my view is that I am torn between wanting to believe it was all above-board, a mistake or some strange physiological trait in the case of Froome (who would cheat so blatantly when leading a Grand Tour when you are guaranteed to be tested?). However, I do think that the line was being pushed by Team Sky. Was it too far? In most cases I’d say it wasn’t, but for Team Sky, with their holier-than-thou raison d’être it definitely was. In the main I just feel disappointed and let down and I don’t believe Brailsford can survive. He was either cheating or incompetent – both are untenable.
I will leave you with one final thought which I heard from François Thomazeau, occasional guest contributor to the Cycling Podcast (I saw their book tour at the Lowry recently – it was excellent!) He says that doping is a legal issue, not a moral issue. So you either break the rules, or you don’t. Nice and simple – only it isn’t really, is it?