The timing is perfect but entirely accidental. Tomorrow evening a documentary, Britain’s Cycling Superheroes: The Price of Success?, will be broadcast on BBC Two, just a few days after UK Anti-Doping finally reported, following a 14-month investigation, on one of the many strands to a multifaceted story.
The film (with which, in the interests of full disclosure, I was involved as a consultant) has been eight months in the making, having been inspired by the various controversies swirling around British Cycling and Team Sky. These included allegations of bullying at the governing body, Sir Bradley Wiggins’ TUEs (therapeutic use exemptions) for a corticosteroid when he won the Tour de France in 2012, and – the subject of the UKAD investigation – a package containing an unidentified medical product delivered to the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné, which Wiggins also won.
Although UKAD said there will be no anti-doping charges, there remain, in the absence of any record of what was in the package, serious questions for Team Sky. The anti-doping agency was critical of the lack of medical records relating to the period in question.
In the programme, we hear at length from two of the men under fire, Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton: a coaching team so close, and seemingly co-dependent, that they are compared to a married couple.
It opens with the British medal rush at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 but moves on to focus on 2010, when Wiggins flopped at the Tour de France in Team Sky’s first year on the road. It was Brailsford’s first high-profile failure. And it is clear that, in the aftermath of that, changes were made. A new team was put around Wiggins, new doctors were recruited, policies were subtly changed. Which is not to say that any rules were broken, but that they pushed closer to the line of what is and isn’t allowed – Brailsford admitted as much at the time.
For some, the idea of going “to the line” is simply a pragmatic approach to professional sport. You’d be crazy not to do anything and everything that the rules allow. For others, there is, located somewhere before the line, a grey area, where products and practices are legal but ethically dubious (think painkillers, cortisone or intravenous recovery).
The notion of a grey area goes to the heart of the controversy around Wiggins’ TUEs, which we only know about because his medical files were hacked by the Fancy Bears in 2016. The question is whether Wiggins’ use of triamcinolone on the eve of his major targets in 2011, 2012 and 2013 was for a medical need, as he has insisted – and which the authorities accepted, since they approved their use – or to gain a performance advantage.
In the film, David Millar dances either side of a different line, defending the toughness of the Brailsford/Sutton coaching regime at British Cycling but criticising, in the strongest terms, Wiggins’ TUEs for a powerful corticosteroid, which Millar himself had used.
“I think they were gaming the system,” says Millar, “I think we all know that. [It’s] hugely disappointing because they were zero tolerance and you wouldn’t think they’d tread into that very grey area that is cortisone use.” He adds that “a little bit of me died” when he heard.
It is what Sutton says on this that some will interpret as ambiguous. “If you’ve got an athlete who’s 95 per cent ready and that little niggle or injury that’s troubling [them]; if you can get that TUE to get them to 100 per cent [then] yeah of course you would in them days,” says the man who was Wiggins’ personal coach in 2011 and 2012. “The business you’re in is to give you the edge on your opponent.”
The film’s director, Dan Clifton, follows up by asking Sutton: “So finding the gains might mean getting a TUE?” “‘Finding the gains might be getting a TUE?’” Sutton replies, considering the question. “Um. Yes, because the rules allow you to do that.”
Is this consistent with the argument that Wiggins’ use of triamcinolone was strictly, as he told the Andrew Marr Show 14 months ago, “to cure a medical condition”?
Another man interviewed for the film is Steve Peters, the forensic psychiatrist who Brailsford considered his most valued staff member between 2004 and 2014, when Brailsford stepped away from British Cycling and Sutton took over. Peters admits that Sutton’s management style could be problematic: “Shane would admit sometimes his passion overran and it ran into what most people saw as hostility or aggression,” says Peters. “Some would feel intimidated or bullied, not all of them.” It eventually proved too much even for Peters. “I said to Dave after [the 2012] Olympics, I can’t continue.”
Emma Pooley, the Beijing silver medallist, admits she was scared of Sutton. “The staff were scared of him,” she adds, “that was my impression.”
Sutton dismisses the idea that he scared anyone, while Brailsford launches a robust defence of a tough, uncompromising approach to coaching: “We’re going to push and if everybody’s not feeling a bit uncomfortable we’re not pushing hard enough.”
It might have been two different films, one focusing on the allegations of bullying and the “culture of fear” that some have claimed prevailed at British Cycling, the other focusing on the medical practices of Team Sky.
But in a sense they are two sides of the same coin. At the heart of it are questions that are being increasingly asked about elite sport: how far is it acceptable to push; how close to the line do you want to go?
l Britain’s Cycling Superheroes: The Price of Success?, BBC Two, Sunday, 9-10pm.