Sunday 25 June 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: The devil is in the lack of detail

Wiggins, Farah, Brailsford and Salazar
Wiggins, Farah, Brailsford and Salazar

Eamonn Sweeney

The corpse has been uncovered, the trap is closing and the pieces are falling into place. If this was an Agatha Christie book, Poirot would be asking the guests to assemble in the library. The past week has removed any shreds of doubt. We know the truth about Team Sky, about British Cycling and perhaps about Mo Farah, too.

On Wednesday, Nicole Sapstead, head of UK Anti-Doping, told the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee that there was no proof that a mysterious package delivered to Bradley Wiggins in France in June 2011 contained the legal decongestant Flumicil. Why not? Because Team Sky and British Cycling didn't keep medical records.

"There is no audit trail of what was going in and out of a comprehensive supply of medical products. British Cycling had no excuse, just an acknowledgement that there was no policy and no records," revealed Sapstead. Game over.

The Flumicil story was unbelievable in the first place. The committee were asked to believe that one Shane Cope of British Cycling flew from Manchester to Geneva and then travelled to France to deliver a drug which could have been bought over the counter in a French chemist for €8. Anyone who's covered a District Court has seen this type of tale, offered not because the defendant thinks it's believable but because he thinks he might as well have some kind of cover story.

Yet even this paltry excuse failed to stand up to scrutiny. Because the lack of records means that we have no way of knowing what Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman was giving to the team's cyclists. He claims he did have records but they were on a laptop which was stolen in 2014. The poor doctor is a very unlucky man - last week he was due to be questioned by the culture, media and sport committee but pulled out at the last minute due to illness.

Sapstead also revealed something even more interesting. Wiggins had initially come under pressure after it was revealed that he received a Therapeutic Use Exemption to use the powerful steroid, triamcinolone. This was dodgy enough in the first place, it's doubtful whether the drug was even the proper thing to give Wiggins for his 'pollen allergies'.

But according to Sapstead, the quantity of triamcinolone was far greater than required for the three injections which Wiggins needed. "You would think there was an excessive amount of triamcinolone being ordered for one person, or quite a few people had a very similar problem."

I've always been a great fan of British understatement and Sapstead's testimony bore a marked similarity to those moments in House of Cards when Francis Urquhart would quip: "You may say that but I couldn't possibly comment."

Sky's house of cards has been wobbling for some time now and no doubt there will be future revelations of its intrinsic rottenness to come. But Wednesday was the day when even the most blinkered team partisans found out the truth about Team Sky, British Cycling and its head, Dave Brailsford. They may pretend they still believe but, in their hearts, they know the jig is up. Not just for Wiggins, who makes a handy target now that he's retired, but for everyone who's sailed under the Team Sky Jolly Roger. Put an asterisk beside every race they've won. At this stage Brailsford is like a child who claims the dog has eaten his homework and can't even prove he has a dog.

And so to Mo. It emerged last week that Farah's coach Alberto Salazar, long the subject of doping allegations, "almost certainly broke anti-doping rules, used prescription medication and drug infusions to boost performance". The information is contained in a US Anti-Doping Agency report leaked by the same Russian hackers who revealed Wiggins' use of TUEs, and appears to be a damning indictment of Salazar - who went to great lengths to impede the investigation. The Times headline, 'Sir Mo Farah was put at risk by coach Alberto Salazar', pretty much sums up the angle the British media have taken on this story. It's one way of looking at it. But it casts a strange light on Farah's insistence last June that "everything has been done, there was nothing and they haven't found anything. All along I knew, and that's why I stuck by Alberto".

Add the Salazar story to Farah's claims about not knowing Jama Aden, the Somali coach arrested for doping offences who ran training groups in which the runner participated, and the fact that he came within one missed drugs test of being suspended from athletics, and a pattern might seem to emerge.

When I think of Mo Farah there is a picture I can never get out of my head. It's 2009 and I'm standing at the finish line of the European Cross Country Championships in Santry, and Farah has collapsed. He has finished second to an Ethiopian running for Spain, Alemayehu Bezabeh, and the effort has taken so much out of him that he is the most severly distressed athlete I've ever seen. Mo Farah looks like an athlete who's given his all. He's 26 and the best he's ever done in a World Championship is seventh over 5,000m.

In 2011 he moves to the USA and starts to train with Salazar. The Olympic and world titles follow. Athletes do improve after all.

So do cyclists, though the improvements of Wiggins and Chris Froome, who in the year before he joined Team Sky was finishing 71st in the not exactly top-class Tour of Catalonia, are pretty much unprecedented. Oh, actually they're not. There was that Texan lad, what was his name again?

There are journalists out there, some of whom are employed by the same organisation which owns Team Sky, who will insist to this day that Team Sky and British Cycling's success is all about something called 'marginal gains'. The old MG is all about attention to detail, apparently. Though seeing that Team Sky and British Cycling apparently didn't even keep medical records, you'd wonder if Marginal Gains is simply a modern day equivalent of phlogiston, a mysterious substance 17th century scientists believed was a vital part of the universe.

The phlogiston theory doesn't have many followers these days. And I think it's a reasonable guess that Marginal Gains will follow it into the dustbin of history. The soulless hacks who promoted it can pretend to believe that there's some innocent explanation for the never-ending accretion of circumstantial evidence, but they know the truth the same as the rest of us.

The argument has switched from 'he's completely innocent' to 'can you prove 100 per cent that he's guilty?' In time they'll be deploying the Armstrong Justification: Everyone else was at it too. They'd have won anyway.

When I look at the people insisting, as the reek of mendacity grows ever stronger, that there is some innocent explanation for the mysterious 'Flumicil' package or the Salazar training methods, I think of Tim The Kitten (RIP). Tim belonged to my eldest daughter and when she was six he met his end, toppling into a tank of milk at a nearby farm as he looked for a free drink, proving the wisdom of Conor McGregor's strictures against the placing of felines in high places. With a heavy heart, I broke the news only to find that she simply refused to believe it. For months she would claim to have seen Tim in the neighbourhood, enjoying his new life in the wild.

That's pretty understandable behaviour for a six-year-old. But there is something pitiful about seeing adults acting in the same way, pretending that Bradley and Dave and Mo are frolicking happily around the sporting pantheon, their reputations as healthy as they've ever been.

There's been a lot of talk lately about Fake News. Well, if you want to see Fake News at its best, look at the stuff written in defence of Brailsford and his boys, even after Paul Kimmage and others had begun to express their doubts. An infamous Sunday Times report, for example, which implied that the questioning of Froome's bona fides was rooted in Irish Anglophobia. Or another one by a Team Sky doctor in the same paper which lashed the detractors and declared: "We should accept Froome for the great, clean athlete he is - maybe the best sportsperson in the world."

Before you blame British jingoism, it's worth noting that both authors were Irish. And also that the House of Commons committee investigating the cycling scandal has probably done a better job than a Dáil committee would have.

I doubt if our politicians would have had the guts to tackle an operator like Brailsford, whose reaction when questioned in December was: "You sitting there being British should be embracing the success and how they've achieved it. You've actually upset me there in the fact that you've not embraced the success of British cycling as a whole."

He can say what he wants now. We know the truth about the rise of British cycling. More household names will, in time, follow Sir Bradley into the hall of disrepute.

Alas, poor legend. I knew it well, Dave. This skull will never smile again.

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