“Never trust someone who says ‘trust me’,” goes the cliché, and though it is not uniformly applicable, clichés are clichés for a reason.
Few sportsmen have been so effusive about their own integrity as Bradley Wiggins, but last year the Russian hacking group Fancy Bears published records showing that the cyclist had obtained a therapeutic use exemption for triamcinolone, a steroid which is used to treat asthma. By amazing coincidence, this same substance also improves power to weight ratio, phenomenally useful for a cyclist, and its use appears to coincide with significant improvement in Wiggins’s form.
But the latest findings by a committee of MPs are concerning. They suggest that use of the drug was widespread throughout Team Sky – by amazing coincidence, Wiggins was not the only rider to suffer from asthma, and by further amazing coincidence, all of the affected cyclists required this same, unusual remedy. Wiggins used triamcinolone before the 2011 Tour de France then again before the 2012 competition – which he won. He had never done so before, and Team Sky had been in business for just three years.
Team Sky argued that they could not defend themselves adequately because their medical records were not fastidiously kept – amazingly, given their much trumpeted fastidiousness – and their medic, Dr Richard Freeman, lost his computer in 2014. As such, there was no paper trail to support Dave Brailsford, the team leader, over another incident. Brailsford insisted that Dr Freeman had arranged for Wiggins to receive a Jiffy bag containing fluimucil, a permitted decongestant, yet when the Department of Culture Media and Sport select committee contacted Freeman, he refused to support the claim on account of legal advice he had sought.
On both matters, the report was damning, noting that while the World Anti-Doping Agency code was not infringed, Wiggins and Team Sky had crossed “the ethical line” drawn by Brailsford. Moreover, the insistence that coaches and managers were largely unaware of the methods used by medical staff “seem incredible, and inconsistent with their original aim of ‘winning clean’ and maintaining the highest ethical standards within their sport”. Meanwhile, Shane Sutton, the former Team Sky and British Cycling coach, informed the committee that “what Brad was doing was unethical but not against the rules”.
Wiggins has since given a long interview to the BBC in which he was far more eloquent describing his anguish than he was explaining why an inhaler could not suffice to treat his condition, why the team doctor could not fully corroborate his version of events, and why a former coach to whom he was close might lie about him with such awful consequences. People were asked to believe him because he wants them to, and because them not doing so makes him upset.
For those who dip into sport or particular sports at a particular time, all this may come as something of a surprise – in 2012 Wiggins was, along with Andy Murray, the star of Britain’s year of national bliss (for those not victimised by austerity). Others, though, were less convinced. In general terms, people have cheated at everything since the dawn of time. In more specific terms, people have done things to cheat at sport that are far, far worse than circumventing or breaking doping laws. In yet more specific terms, no sport is as tainted by doping as cycling.
As such, it is easy to see why Wiggins might have acted unethically: if you don’t bend the rules, you probably won’t win, because someone else will.
Wiggins also benefited from the assumption that a British athlete would be clean, explaining as much in a Guardian article written in June 2012. “There is a different culture in British cycling. Britain is a country where doping is not morally acceptable … I don’t care what people say, the attitude to doping in the UK is different to in Italy or France maybe, where a rider like Richard Virenque can dope, be caught, be banned, come back and be a national hero.” Perhaps he has never heard of Linford Christie.
This moral rectitude underpinned everything for which Team Sky stood. Although, by amazing coincidence, their success paralleled their spending, they peddled a self-righteous and ridiculous notion of marginal gains which insisted that by working harder and smarter than the rest, they could override whatever cheating was going on elsewhere and create champions. They were not simply competing at sport, but espousing an intellectual, scientific and moral superiority to chime with every myth that the UK peddles of itself.
Propagating his own persona, Wiggins adopted a similar tactic: he was a man apart. So he grew his sideburns and liked music and stuff, commenting that “I only do it to be individual” – just like all the other the Mods.
Also part of this shtick was a much-avowed hatred of publicity. In this regard, Wiggins posed on a throne after winning Olympic gold, signed with entertainment svengali Simon Fuller and accepted a knighthood – on the advice of Paul Weller, issued while he was visiting his tailor. “I love the history of it and what it used to stand for,” he said later. “Knights that would go out to battle and be rewarded”. Wiggins also published a memoir, played guitar with Paul Weller on at the Sports Personality of the Year awards, was the subject of a GQ feature, and vowed to wear a Liverpool top when visiting a Manchester United training session because “I’m a knight. I can do what I want”.