Behind the Headlines: Team Sky

Behind the Headlines: Team Sky

David Leslie

Consultant David Leslie looks at the damage caused to Team Sky’s reputation following recent accusations of doping, and what they must do to restore trust in their brand.

What happened?

It has been a tough few weeks for the squeaky clean professional cycling outfit Team Sky following revelations that former lead rider, and side-burned UK national icon, Sir Bradley Wiggins used a banned steroid before three of his most important races.

Team Sky claims that the steroid was taken legally under “Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE)” rules to treat Wiggins’ severe allergies. While this is indeed a recognised treatment for allergies, the steroid in question, triamcinolone acetonide, is the same substance which led to Lance Armstrong’s 1999 failed drugs test and is widely acknowledged to have performance enhancing qualities.

While the TUE system is a subject of much debate, with many athletes refusing to use it to avoid all illegal substances, it is the timing of Wiggins’ use that is extremely problematic, as he only applied for use of the steroid immediately before his Tour de France campaigns in 2011 and 2012, and his Giro d’Italia ride in 2013 – three of the biggest rides of his career.

On top of this, Team Sky is engulfed in a continuing saga surrounding a mysterious package which was sent to a Team Sky doctor on the final day of a race which Wiggins went on to win in 2011. British Cycling confirm it was sent for medical purposes but Dave Brailsford, Team Principal of Team Sky, has repeatedly refused to confirm the contents of the package or why it was sent, fueling much speculation.

Why is it important?

This is a big scandal chiefly because of the manner in which Team Sky was established. In 2009 the team was launched amid much fanfare and with huge emphasis on their zero tolerance policy towards doping.

Good to their promise, Team Sky spent the next seven years censuring teams who had hired former dopers and indeed fired members of their own team when it became clear that they had history of association with doping or dopers.

After years of moral superiority on the subject, Team Sky now have to publically admit that they have either been exploiting an extremely grey area in the rule book, or been found guilty of everything they claim to stand against.

What’s the reaction been?

There has been widespread criticism levelled at Team Sky, Wiggins and Dave Brailsford for the timing of the TUEs and the team’s poor response to the scandal. Cycling’s governing body have criticised Team Sky’s actions and David Walsh, the Chief Sports Writer at the Times, and the man widely credited with exposing Lance Armstrong as a cheat, has called for Brailsford to resign.

Best headline?

“Team Sky have become victims of their own crusading rhetoric”  Paul Hayward, The Telegraph, 11 October 2016

What’s next?

While they deny all wrongdoing, Team Sky remains under investigation by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) and the team’s reputation is in free-fall. Regardless of whether they are cleared of wrongdoing by UKAD, their reputation may never fully recover.

As a first step towards rehabilitating the team’s reputation, Dave Brailsford must step down. He is not only at the heart of the TUE furore but it was he who led the soaring anti-doping rhetoric from day one. While he remains in position, the organisation cannot begin to move on.

Secondly, if there is any more dirty laundry, it must be aired as close to Brailsford departure as possible. If the team is to continue, all the dirt and suspicion must leave with him to allow a new principal to come in on a clean slate.

Finally, Team Sky must make good of their founding promise of transparency. If they truly believe in the integrity of the sport, they must be open about their regime, including the use of TUEs, and offer to work closely with the sport’s governing body and anti-doping agencies to develop a framework which will ensure that grey areas and cheating is exposed more readily.