Mysterious packages, powerful drugs and an ethical breach, but what has Wiggins done?
A parliamentary committee has accused Bradley Wiggins of using medical drugs to improve his performance ahead of key cycling events – a claim he denies. But what else has the committee discovered? Here, the key issues of the story are explained in full. By Jamie Braidwood
In August 2015, The Sunday Times published a series of articles exposing the extent of blood doping in sport. The paper, along with German TV company ARD, had received access to a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) database containing 12,000 blood results from 5,000 athletes. It emerged that over 800 athletes, roughly one in seven, proved to have ‘abnormal’ blood results, suggesting that blood doping was prevalent across elite sport.
In response, the department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched an inquiry titled “Combatting doping in sport”, but the inquiry started to focus on cycling, and specifically, on Bradley Wiggins and his team, Team Sky, after another revelation a year later.
This time it was Fancy Bears, the anonymous Russian group, who released thousands of athletes’ medical records after they hacked WADA’s database. The published information included the medical records of a number of prevalent British athletes such as Wiggins, as well as his Sky team-mate Chris Froome and the four-time Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah.
Wiggins’ medical records revealed that he had used the banned drug triamcinolone under a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) on three occasions, before the Tour de France in 2011 and 2012 and before the Giro d’Italia in 2013, in order to treat his long-term asthma condition.
What is triamcinolone?
Triamcinolone is a corticosteroid and it is used primarily for treatment such as asthma. It’s a strong catabolic agent, which means it can break down tissue very rapidly.
Asthma is a common condition caused by an inflammation in the airway which restricts airflow into the lungs. A large proportion of endurance athletes, such as Wiggins, develop asthma over time due to the amount of training they undertake.
“What triamcinolone does is it reduces inflammation in the airway,” says Dr Mark Ross, who is a sports and exercise science lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, as well as an advisor to the UK Anti-Doping Agency. “This allows more air to get into the lungs and the bloodstream to get to the muscles.
“If Wiggins was reporting with bronchial or lung restriction, then triamcinolone would be able to relieve that.”
However, triamcinolone also has a number of side effects, mainly that it allows the user to lose a lot of weight very quickly.
“What that allows you to do as a cyclist is you can lose body mass but still maintain your power output on the bike”, says Dr Ross. “A key measure of cycling performance in big races like the Tour de France is what we call power to weight ratio.
“Now the use of triamcinolone would allow him to lose a lot of weight whilst maintaining his power which means his power to weight ratio improves, meaning that he is very light on the bike whilst still being able to have a high power output when he’s on the hills. So in that respect there have been reports that it is heavily performance enhancing, if not used for asthma.”
David Miller, a former cyclist who was found guilty of doping in 2004 but has since come back to cycling as an anti-doping ambassador, described triamcinolone as being the strongest drug he had ever taken.
“Miller has said he’d used EPO and testosterone before”, says Dr Ross. “But that nothing improved his performance and his power to weight ratio like triamcinolone did. He said that once he took it he was losing kilos off his body mass in days, and was losing so much body fat he could see the blood vessels in his arm. He felt he was on a high.”
Dr Mark Ross explains what triamcinolone is and how it could be used as a performancing enhancing drug.
What are TUEs?
TUEs, or Therapeutic Use Exemptions, permit athletes to take medicines to treat long-term conditions such as asthma or pollens.
These exemptions are required because, otherwise, the drugs that were requested were banned.
In order to receive a TUE, the athlete must prove to WADA that they conform to their guidelines, which are;
- Would the athlete suffer significant health problems without taking the substance?
- Would it be performance enhancing?
- Is there a reasonable alternative?
- Is the need to take the substance due to prior use?
According to WADA, Wiggins did conform to these rules as he was granted use of triamcinolone, which is on WADA’s list of banned substances, on three occasions.
But at the end of their report, the parliamentary committee said that they thought the TUE system was “open to abuse”. Contrary to the rules, they believed triamcinolone was used by Wiggins to improve his performance, rather than to treat a medical need. There have since been calls for the TUE system to be scrapped entirely.
What was in the ‘package’?
A key part of the investigation into Wiggins’ use of triamcinolone centres around the ‘package’, or the ‘jiffy bag’.
In June 2011, Team Sky arranged for a sealed package to be picked up from their base in Manchester, and taken to the south-east of France. Wiggins was in the area having just completed a key warm up race as part of his Tour de France preparations.
The package was prepared and picked up by Team Sky staff on the 8th of June, but wasn’t delivered until four days later on the 12th. It was then given to Richard Freeman, the Team Sky doctor. It has been confirmed that Wiggins received treatment later that day, after the race had finished, and that he was treated with whatever was in the package.
Dr Freeman told the parliamentary committee that the package contained Fluimucil, which is used for the treatment of a build-up of mucus.
However this was put into serious doubt by the complete absence of medical records. There was no evidence that Fluimucil was stored in Manchester, delivered to France, or given to Wiggins.
As for sources, the man who delivered the package, who was an employee of Team Sky and British Cycling, didn’t know what was in it, while the man who prepared the package, says he can’t remember what it contained. Even Dr Freeman has changed his original statement. Even he will not confirm that the package contained Fluimucil.
The Fluimucil explanation has been discredited, both by the parliamentary committee and by the UK Anti-Doping Agency’s own investigation, but Team Sky’s attempt to say that the package did contain Fluimucil has led to more questions.
If that was the case, and the package did contain Fluimucil, then why did Team Sky arrange for an employee to deliver it all the way from Manchester, when they could have just purchased it at a local pharmacy? Why also, was there so much suspicion and mystery? Why were there no records? And why was the package only delivered on the 12th when it was first requested to be picked up on the 8th?
All of this has fuelled the suspicion that the package actually contained triamcinolone. Due to the release of Wiggins’ TUE information, it’s public knowledge that he was administered the drug, legally, in June 2011, to treat his asthma before the Tour de France.
The application for the TUE was submitted on the 30th of May, but it was not permitted by WADA until the 26th of June.
It is therefore alleged that Team Sky delivered triamcinolone in the package on the 12th and was given to Wiggins around that time, but without receiving an official TUE.
Despite investigations from both UK anti-doping and the parliamentary committee, we are no closer to finding out what the ‘package’ contained. According to both, neither are in a position to say due to the lack of evidence.
Jamie Braidwood explains the mystery surrounding the ‘package’.
What has Wiggins done wrong?
Well, technically nothing yet. As it stands, given the information that is currently out there, there is no evidence of Wiggins or Team Sky doing anything illegal or against the rules.
But there are still a lot of questions to be asked.
In the conclusion of their report, the parliamentary committee stated that Wiggins and Team Sky had “crossed an ethical line”, which is a damning enough statement, and one that brings into disrepute the groundbreaking achievements of British Cycling over the past 10 years.
Team Sky launched in 2010 with the aim of winning the Tour de France with a British rider within five years. The Tour had never been won by a British rider and while the aim was ambitious, it wasn’t out of the question given the achievements of British Cycling in the years prior.
Under the leadership of Dave Brailsford, British Cycling won eight gold medals for Team GB at the 2008 Olympics. It was an extraordinary result, shattering their previous best haul of two gold medals in 2004 and 1904. Brailsford’s operation, which attracted a lot of attention due to their obsession of ‘marginal gains’, was undeniably the best in the world, and he hoped to take his experiences and knowledge into road cycling by leading Team Sky.
When Team Sky launched their aim was not only to win but to do it right, and win clean. They adopted a zero-tolerance policy on doping, which was seen as a breath of fresh air given cycling’s torrid history of cheating.
When Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, Team Sky achieved their aim – but did they do it cleanly? Again, there is no evidence that they have done anything illegal, but there is clear proof that they have taken advantage of a TUE system that was “open to abuse”. According to the inquiry they used the powerful drug triamcinolone to improve performance, and not to treat a medical need.
That, as well as the complete lack of medical records and the mystery that surrounds the ‘package’, points to the damning verdict that Team Sky knew what they were doing, and gained an unfair, unethical, advantage. The question is: are we alright with that?