I told myself I wouldn’t bother writing about this whole Team Sky mess. Not this close to Christmas. Not with two children under four both hyper and my wife’s present still to buy. Yet here I am, rattling away on the keyboard in an attempt to squeeze in some thoughts before Christmas. After that, I’m not sure I’ll care enough. But there has been so much outrage that I wanted to give my own perspective to some degree or other.
If you’re still reading now then chances are you know the background and the details, so I’ll spare you a run down. Suffice to say, it has been an ugly year for Team Sky away from the racing. In fact, on the bike it’s been quite memorable. Another Tour victory, and their first Monument win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But the year draws to a close with their reputation on the line and a scandal at hand. One in which they have prolonged by failing to present an adequate response.
I must say though, I find it hard to call the whole mess a scandal in the traditional sense of the word. Knowing where the sport has been before, and all that. An ugly situation for sure, but classified by your own personal perspective of it only. And that’s the difference with this one. In the old days it was a full-blown back and white objective doping scandal. This is more a subjective shade of grey; one of ethics and morals and where each individual sees the invisible ethical line in their own mind. With no violation of the rules taking place, where does Sky’s failure in ethics sit in proportion to your own standards? Or do you care about some fictional line if they haven’t broken the hard line that is the letter of the law? As such the outrage here is subjective to what you think is and isn’t wrong from a moral point of view.
Unfortunately though, Sky have created a mess far bigger than it ought to be by trying to wrangle their way out of it. As such it has now become a PR scandal. Not only an issue of Team Sky’s TUE use, the timing of that use and the jiffy-bag sideshow, but how they’ve handled the crisis. Not only a scandal about falling ethics but also about their failing transparency. Instead of being open an transparent as they promised they would be, they hoped it would all go away by dodging the questions. And no more so than with this jiffy bag. The silence of what was in it was deafening. And then on Monday, Dave Brailsford revealed it to be Fluimucil, an over the counter product not on WADA’s banned substance list. Why wait until they were in front of a Parliamentary hearing (the need for which at the expensive of the British tax payer, itself debatable) to finally come clean about something like that? The sudden reveal leaves people wondering why they didn’t say what it was to begin with? It also leaves others failing to believe them. Being pressured into it this far down the line has made it look worse. The optics are awful. And that is where this scandal is at.
Of course, that said, if this is were the benchmark for a scandal in cycling now lies, then the sport has come far. Cars full of EPO at the border, or a doctors fridge full of blood bags this is not. Still, it hasn’t been pretty and reputations are at stake.
As for me, there is no doubt Sky slipped up in comparison to their own high standards, but not by enough for me to hang them. From a PR perspective they made a right mess, but this is not a PR blog and I am no PR analyst. I prefer the cycling aspect of what happened in 2012 and what has happened since. In that regard, to me, Sky remained within the physical rules. They applied for and received a TUE by the protocols in place at the time. Some suggest Bradley Wiggins did not need that TUE for health reasons and that he got it for a performance enhancing benefit. But that is speculative at best and I am not in the business of speculating without facts. He may well have needed it, though in the end it was up to the UCI to reject the application. Why they didn’t, we don’t know. Still, this is something that Sky might want to explain further themselves in a bid to help clear the air.
But let’s be clear…the idea that Sky have abused the TUE system is false. From what we currently know, their TUE use has been minimal by comparison to some. TUE use has fallen at Sky in the five years since this affair. The TUE system in general has also tightened at UCI and WADA level, though the case could be mad for tightening it further. But take Chris Froome for example, he has only applied for two TUE’s over the years and never during his three Tour de France victories. They say that mud sticks and that might be the shame in all this. But if you can look above the mud, you begin to see a difference. If there is an underlying issue within Sky, that continues to this day, then it has yet to reveal itself. And I see no evidence of it. If the Wiggins’ TUE application sat wrong with you, you can at least admit there has not been a repeat pattern. That isn’t to say Sky are in the clear though, far from it. Questions will continue and if they want to remain on a higher ethical standard, they need to start giving more direct answers.
Applying for TUE’s at all, is enough to suggest an ethical slip to some, and on that basis even Chris Froome has taken heat. The belief being that TUE use in any regard is not good enough for a team like Sky. But the TUE system is there for a good reason; it’s the abuse of it we have to be wary of. And if our ethics make us strict on that, then we must be wary of abuse from any team. Then to other fans, being ethical is not cheating by the letter of the rules of the sport. But as I have said, ethics are subjective.
For me, Team Sky are a clean team at their core. In applying for TUE use, even for a legitimate reason, they have proven themselves not to be beyond absolute reproach, but I have seen no evidence that Sky have gone beyond the line as I see it. If anything in 2016 they have happened to fall closer to the level of the rest.