As the hackers known as Fancy Bears revealed medical information attributed to Olympic gold medallist Fabian Cancellara and Tour of Britain winner Steve Cummings on Friday afternoon, Bradley Wiggins found himself still embroiled in a heated debate about his own use of TUEs. As we reported last week, both former Sky rider Wiggins and current Sky superstar Chris Froome were subject to detailed scrutiny in the media and online following the release of documents obtained by a hack on a World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) database, showing that both Tour de France winners had taken banned substances with a therapeutic use exemption or TUE, the method by which professional athletes are permitted to use such medications to treat ongoing conditions such as asthma.
Chris Froome had previously spoken about his use of TUEs when his 2014 prescription for prednisolone was revealed. Earlier this year, the three time TdF winner had spoken to The Scotsman newspaper about using TUEs, which he confirmed he had done twice in his career, once in May 2013 for 5 days at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and again for 7 days during the Tour of Romandy in 2014. Both TUEs were UCI approved as part of the treatment for Froome’s asthma. Addressing the recent WADA hack, Froome shrugged off any controversy. “I’ve openly discussed my TUEs with the media and have no issues with the leak, which confirms my statements”.
Wiggins however was not so lucky. The controversy surrounding his TUEs centred around claims made in his 2012 autobiography ‘My Time’, in which Sir Bradley wrote that he had never received any injections in relation to his cycling career. The leaked WADA information appeared to tell a different tale, showing that, alongside a host of TUEs for asthma medication such as salbutamol and formoterol, Wiggins had been granted TUEs for injectable Triamcinolone Acetonide, used to treat a pollen allergy. A statement was hurried out on behalf of the former Sky man, claiming that the rider had been referring in his autobiography to the use of “illegal intravenous injections”, not approved intramuscular injections such as triamcinolone. This statement did nothing to quell the furore. Some felt uneasy that Wiggins had not made any direct comment, choosing instead to communicate through his press team. Others felt that, by drawing attention to the difference between intravenous and intramuscular treatments, the statement was addressing the public as if they were fools, and was also starting to appear as a case of ‘one doth protest too much’.
Photo: Wiggins on Stage 7b of the 2016 Tour of Britain.
Questions were also asked over Team Sky’s relationship with disgraced doping doctor Geert Leinders, who was hired by the team during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, when Wiggins was approaching the pinnacle of his road career. Leinders was banned from working in sport for life after he was found to have committed serious anti-doping violations when working for the Rabobank team. Whilst there have never been any allegations of doping stemming from the doctor’s time at Team Sky, a USADA report compiled as a result of the 2012 investigation into Lance Armstong claims that Leinders administered, possessed and trafficked a host of banned substances including EPO, testosterone and corticosteroids for Rabobank riders during his tenure as the team. Leinders was also accused of administering blood transfusions to Rabobank team members.
Forced to address his relationship with the Belgian doctor, a spokesman for Bradley Wiggins explained “Brad has no direct link to Geert Leinders. Leinders was ‘on race’ doctor for Team Sky for a short period and so was occasionally present at races dealing with injuries sustained whilst racing, such as colds and bruises. Leinders had no part in Brad’s TUE application”.
Again, the statement did nothing to quell the rising tide of voices questioning Bradley Wiggins. Four years on from the outcome of the Lance Armstrong investigation, fans are wary of being taken for fools yet again. Releasing statements through spokespeople instead of directly addressing the matter as Froome chose to do, has prolonged the sense of unease. By refusing to answer questions about his conduct in person, many have decided that Wiggins must have something to hide.
In the face of the ongoing storm, Wiggins has been forced to try a different approach to cease the clamour, by appearing on national TV on Sunday morning as part of the Andrew Marr Show. Following yet another Olympic medal haul for Team GB in the velodrome at the Rio games, Wiggins should be on our screens celebrating the close of a fantastically successful career as one of Britain’s most decorated Olympic athletes. Instead he faces the long, drawn out hangover from the Armstrong era.
As the controversy rumbles on with no sign of slowing, former UK pro cyclist and anti-doping campaigner David Millar told The Daily Telegraph that in-competition use of triamcinolone should be banned, and that there should be complete transparency surrounding the use of TUEs. Millar, who himself was handed a suspension from the sport in 2004 for admitting to the use of performance enhancing drugs, claimed that triamcinolone, brand name Kenacort, was incredibly powerful – even when compared with more well known performance enhancers such as EPO. “I took EPO and testosterone patches” explained Millar, “and they obviously produce huge differences in your blood…you felt at your top level. Kenacort though, was the only one you took and three days later you looked different. It’s scary because it’s catabolic so it’s eating into you. It felt destructive. It felt powerful….if it’s that strong, we shouldn’t be allowed to take it unless there is a serious issue. And if we’re suffering from that serious an issue, we shouldn’t be racing”. Millar went on to say that he couldn’t “fathom” why doctors would be prescribing such a powerful drug before races. “We shouldn’t have to face this”.
Sir Bradley may well be thinking “we shouldn’t have to face this” each time another armchair detective on Twitter claims to have known all along that there was something afoot at Team Sky. Whilst the UCI condones the use of TUEs, many so-called cycling fans are whipping themselves up into a frenzy over the WADA leaks, forgetting that Wiggins et al had explicit approval from cycling’s governing body to take the medication listed on their TUEs. Taking an approved drug to treat a recognized condition is not the same as systematic and sustained doping. Just like that colleague who is always ‘ill’ on a Friday, there are probably those who take advantage of the system, just as there will be those who follow the TUE procedure to the letter. The release of this information does not mean that any of the cyclists named by Fancy Bears have done anything wrong.
Establishing how to manage the TUE system so that it is fair to everyone should form part of the UCI’s approach to building a successful anti-doping programme. Meanwhile, one of the UK’s previously best-loved sportsmen is caught in the cross-hairs, facing a fight for his reputation.