A devastating report from a parliamentary select committee shows a culture of studied evasion around the abuse of performance-enhancing substances in professional sport
What is the point of sport? The recent death of Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the world’s first four-minute mile in 1954 while he was a medical student training in his time off, suggested one answer. The publication two days later of a devastating report into doping in cycling and athletics by a parliamentary select committee suggests a rather different one. Sebastian Coe, a Conservative peer who had held, as a professional, the world mile record that had once been Bannister’s, gave a dismal showing in his testimony about his time in the International Association of Athletics Federations. Before becoming president Lord Coe was vice-president for eight years, a period in which one of the then president’s sons was, the IAAF said, taking bribes to expunge the records of failed drug tests on Russian athletes. He told the committee that he was aware only in the vaguest terms of suspicions about the organised, industrial-scale doping of Russian athletes, and the possible involvement of the president. Later an email came to light showing him forwarding detailed allegations from a whistleblower to the head of the Federation’s ethics committee (a body that does in fact exist) although he says he never read them. The committee observed that his account of his own incuriosity about these allegations “stretches credibility”. It further described his reason for not publishing a scientific study into the prevalence of doping in athletics as “frankly risible”.
Over in the world of professional cycling, Team Sky, founded to “win clean”, turns out to have had a terrible problem with asthma among its athletes. Sir Bradley Wiggins apparently suffered from an asthma that could only be treated with a steroid which has the side-effect of allowing endurance athletes to lose fat rapidly while maintaining muscle mass. This is legal provided a doctor has certified that the drug is needed to treat the asthma. Body weight is extremely important to road cyclists: when Sir Bradley raced in the Olympics for Britain on a flat track, he weighed 82kg; competing later over the mountains of the Tour de France, he weighed only 72kg. The rigours of training needed to lose so much weight from the body of an Olympic athlete can only be imagined. The evidence given to the committee – as well as the refusal of the team’s then doctor to clarify one vital point – suggest that when Sir Bradley won the Tour de France in 2012 he may have been treated with this steroid at a time when he had applied for, but not yet received, the necessary certificate of exemption. Since the records have been lost, if they ever existed, we will never be sure.
We’ve got to go now to do some work – thanks for all the questions and apologies we couldn’t answer them all. Best, Sean and Martha
And, in case you missed them, here is a handy list of our pieces on the story over the last day or two:
Hi Martha, Sean. What should we think about the state of British sport? Is this story another example of why we’re only a small step away from the Russian/Armstrong approach? Or, by challenging an extra puff on an asthma inhaler does it show how British is scrupulously careful and leading the world in keeping sport clean?
I genuinely don’t think there’s anything on the scale of systemic doping in Russia going on in British sport but I think the recent duty of care scandals have shown we’re increasingly adopting a win at all costs mantra in Olympic sport. We have to be cautious that doesn’t stray into abuse of medicine.
Michael Charlie Smith replies:
How much salbutamol actually is 1000mg (or whatever the limit is), how many puffs of an inhaler would you need to take to put that much in your system?
It’s 16 puffs over 24 hours, or eight puffs over 12.
Given that this paper has long held the view that Team Sky and Froome were cheating and has never been particularity careful about mixing evidence and innuendo, is there anything Sky or Froome could say or do now that would change your assumption of a his guilt? (Or will we need to wait 50 years for a balanced reappraisal a la Tom Simpson?)
It’s funny because I think the exact opposite charge was levelled against the paper over some of our coverage of the Wiggins case. No assumption of guilt here but fact he has failed a test (with double permitted amount of a specified substance) surely warrants further examination?
In German-speaking media it was reported that Tony Martin is “furious” and claims that the UCI applies double standards in Froome’s case. He suggests that other cyclists would get and have been “banned with immediate effect” in similar cases. He further says that he cannot recall “a similar case in the recent past” and that “it is a scandal as he would have not been allowed to participate at the world cup”. Do you agree with that assessment? And if yes, is there a larger problem with the cycling industry protecting their stars (something that has already been claimed in the Armstrong era)?
It appears to be a misreading of the rules on Martin’s par. With some substances an analytical finding automatically triggers a provisional ban, that is not the case with salbutamol, which means Froome is allowed to compete until his case, which he was told about on 20 September, is resolved. On his other point, that Sky gets preferential treatment – he is certainly not alone in thinking that…
There is no evidence that this substance has any beneficial effect on performance, lets try to keep a sense of perspective.
There are two points worth making in response here:
1) There is a limit set by the World Anti-Doping Agency and Chris Froome has exceeded it by twice the permitted out.
Why has it taken so long for the UCI to investigate this?
As soon as the A-sample taken on the 7th September was flagged up it became part of the UCI’s result management process and they notified Froome of the failed test on the 20th September. He then notified them that he wanted his B sample opened. They then set out the appeal process. It was then up to the UCI whether they made the adverse analytical finding public. They chose not to, which is pretty standard in these cases.
Given that cycling is now dealing with asthma medication rather than out-and-out Armstrong-type cheating, how much does that suggest cycling has got on top of the drug problem, or has it just moved deeper underground? And given cycling’s more aggressive stance on drug testing, how does it “do” in relation to other sports? We hear little about performance test failures outside cycling, strength sports and athletics?
That is a fascinating question. The honest answer is we can’t be sure whether it has gone deeper underground in cycling and other sports – or, instead, teams are straying into grey areas more than the black. Interestingly I was having a discussion with a cycling journalist about triamcinolone and the use of corticosteroids in competition a while ago (which is illegal) and he basically said ‘If you had told me that big races could be won 15 years ago with just some dodgy TUEs and corticosteroids, I would have bitten your hand off.” Anyway, I think we can say the following with confidence: 1) Anti-Doping is ineffective. There are lots of good people in the system but the testing is not good enough, the funding inadequate and it is too easy not to get caught. As Nicole Cooke vividly put it to the DCMS select committee early this year: “the measures and schemes to fight the abuse of PEDs are inadequate and ineffective – [it’s] the wrong people fighting the wrong war, in the wrong way, with the wrong tools”. 2) There is certainly enough circumstantial evidence to make you wonder what is going on. When the journalist Steve Howell was researching his book Over The Line, for instance, he asked a very senior official in Welsh sport how many rugby players he thought were using steroids. He put it simply: “How many aren’t?”. Daniel Spencer-Tonks, an amateur rugby league player who was banned for taking steroids, also claimed doping is “hugely widespread at all levels” and young players feel “pressure to be bigger, faster and stronger”. The former France prop Laurent Bénézech, who has claimed he was given performance-enhancers during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, cited another problem: the use of cortisone, which “allows an athlete to train more without feeling pain or tiredness – and substantially increases his athletic performance”.
Rob Allen asks:
Why was the decision taken to publish this now following a leak rather than after a UCI investigation had been completed? It feels a lot of the media are making judgements based on limited facts (shock horror I know!).
In the past there have been suspicions that, for whatever reason, failed drugs test have been covered up. Froome has no right to anonymity here, both his A sample and B sample show double the permitted amount of a specified substance – an adverse analytical finding, also known as a failed test. Froome is not disputing that. He is now embarking on a process to attempt to prove there are legitimate reasons for this failed test and that is his right, we are not interfering with that process. Equally it is not our job to be part of the Team Sky PR machine and continue concealing the failed test. In fact I would argue there is a strong public interest in ourselves and Le Monde investigating and running the story. I think we are presenting the facts in a fair manner.
Given Sky’s recent history with keeping records of what their riders are taking in the jiffy bag case. How can anyone take seriously records they produce of what Froome has been taking?
There’s an irony in the fact that Team Sky and British Cycling’s lack of medical records (see Doctor Richard Freeman’s stolen laptop) was cited by the UK Anti-Doping Agency as one of the reasons they were unable to fully investigate allegations levelled at Bradley Wiggins over the mystery jiffy bag delivery in 2011. Now Sky will be presumably invoking medical records and previous test results in a bid to clear Froome’s name.
I find this disturbing. What we know: he has asthma, is using a legal drug to resolve this, he has exceeded a threshold, the UCI are querying this, it can be explained by many biological factors. Therefore naturally the guardian etc. have blown this up, whipped up a frenzy without allowing the process – carried out by experts – to be completed. The story is cheap.
You seem to making a large number of assumptions here. The key point is that under the World Anti-Doping Agency code, athletes are liable for what is put in their system. The result of Chris Froome’s test on September 7 at the Vuelta means he has provisionally broken an anti-doping rule. And because of that, it is up to him to explain how the excessive levels of salbutamol got into his urine. If he can’t then strict liability apply. Crucially, Froome has the burden of proof here.
You say it can be explained by biological factors. The medical experts I have spoken to are nowhere near as confident. Perhaps it. Perhaps it won’t. But it is something that Chris Froome and his team will try to hone in on over the coming weeks and months – that dehydration was a factor, or perhaps there was some other physiological reason for the high test etc and so on.
What actual performance advantage would Froome gain from exceeding the WADA limit on Salbutamol if he’s proven to have done so? And if Salbutamol works as a PED in the context of a grand tour, how would he have been stupid enough to exceed the minimum dose on a day when he knew he was pretty much 100% likely to be tested?
Hi BadlyWiredDog, that’s what makes this case so interesting (and confusing). Most experts seem to be in agreement that the performance enhancing benefits of salbutamol taken with an inhaler would be negligible for an athlete without asthma and simply performance enabling for an athlete with asthma. Some experts say when taken orally it could help in sprint stages but Froome insists he has only ever used it with a “puffer.”
You would also assume Froome and Team Sky would be aware he was likely to be tested most days and that any excessive dosage of the medication would be blatantly obvious in a urine test. So it would be an incredibly stupid way to cheat. The problem for Froome and Team Sky is that they are already operating under increased scrutiny after the Wiggins case and these anti-doping tests are their chance to prove they haven’t done anything wrong. Instead, Froome’s failed tests only increases the level of suspicion. It’s up to them to now prove there’s some other reason for his sample showing double the permitted amount.
zzaymssik has two questions:
1. What’s the difference between an “adverse result” and failing a drugs test?
2. What is the performance gain he would have had from the dose he took?
Very simply – an adverse analytical finding is a potential breach in anti-doping rules, which means that Froome has to explain why there was double the levels of permitted levels of salbutamol in his system.
Here’s what the World Anti-Doping Agency say –
The problem, as I see it, is that sportspeople (not just professionals) are always looking for that ‘edge’, and will skirt around and find loopholes in the incredibly confusing rules, until something like this happens and Froome, who ‘technically’ hasn’t broken any rules, is made a scapegoat for something that everybody’s doing? Are we getting near to the point where we just say ‘crack on lads, take whatever you like’, ridding us of this ridiculous ambiguity for ever?
Ah, the old ‘let them take what they want and then see who can run fastest/lift most etc’ argument. Can see the attraction but for a start that would be incredibly dangerous for the athletes involved. But I think your suggestion emphasises the credibility problem faced by professional cycling and probably athletics and other sports, too, that the idea of clean sport is seen as fanciful. High profile cases like this contribute to the cynicism.
What would have happened had media sources not released this information? How would it have likely played out? Would it ever have been released and, if so, when? In the short term, Froome is still presumably on the SPOTY shortlist? Good idea or not?
Hi Oommph, there were no indications that the UCI, Team Sky or Froome himself would have released the information. In fact, in an interview with Froome on Sky News (ahem!) this morning he nodded when it was put to him that the information would not have been made public had two newspapers (The Guardian and Le Monde) broken the story.
I suspect it would have remained private. The UCI have no obligation to make public and adverse analytical finding and nor do Froome or the team.
Is Slabutamol also a potential masking agent? I’ve heard contrasting information on this. Are there clauses in the Team Sky contract so that Sky can quit their sponsorship if a rider is caught guilty of cheating / failing a drugs test?
I have heard it suggested in a number of places that salbutamol is a masking agent. But I spoke to two senior anti-doping figures last night and they suggested it wasn’t. Am happy to be proved otherwise, but I can only go with what the experts tell me.
And, yes, Sky do have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to doping. This case, however, isn’t completely straightforward in that regard: Chris Froome did fail a test on September 7 for excessive salbutamol but it was an adverse analytical finding not an anti-doping rule violation. So even if he is stripped of his Vuelta a Espana title and is banned he may not necessarily lose his job at Team Sky.
Hello all, sorry for the delay in responding – Martha and I have just been in a departmental meeting that overran a little. We’ll start answering as many questions as we can now … Cheers, Sean
Chris Froome was hoping to win his fifth Tour de France title next year but, depending on how cycling’s governing body react after his failed drugs test, he may well be banned from the sport when the race begins on the tiny island of Noirmoutier in July. In a week when Froome may have had designs on winning the Sports Personality of the Year award, he is now fighting to save his reputation. Froome says he has “done nothing wrong” and “fundamentally followed the protocol”. But, unless he can provide a sufficient explanation for his failed test, he is likely to lose his Vuelta title and be banned from his sport.
Sean and Martha broke the story on the Guardian and they will be here soonto answer all of your questions. In the meantime, here are some pieces you might have missed:
Victory in Madrid on Sunday saw Chris Froome make history as the first rider to win the Vuelta a España and Tour de France in the same year, since Bernard Hinault in 1978. The win also saw him become the first Briton to win the event and the first Briton to win a major Tour, other than the Tour de France. It was his fifth Grand Tour victory and ensures that his name will sit among the sport’s greats.
Will Chris Froome do the double? Sky’s leader arrived at the start line in Nîmes last Saturday morning with a “sense of mission” to join Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault as the only riders to have won both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España in the same season. “Previous years, the Vuelta felt like an afterthought,” said Froome. “This year we’ve thought about it a lot. We’re going there with a sense of mission and I just want to have a real shot at it.”
After covering 26 Tours I have some wonderful memories but the 2017 race was my last reporting full-time. It is time to spend my Julys doing something else
When I returned from reporting on the Tour de France for the first time I told my then boss, Martin Ayres, that I felt the Tour could be addictive. That was 27 years and 26 Tours ago, which speaks for itself. Now it is time to go through the journalistic equivalent of cold turkey. I have decided this is my last Tour reporting full-time for the Guardian, nearly a quarter of a century after I was first offered the job.
I will return to the race, I would hope, but not as a full-time, daily reporter, which is what I have been for 26 of the past 27 Tours – 20 of them completed in full – with all the stimulus, constraints, rewards and stress that role entails. I won’t be on the road next year; if and when I return it will be at a time of my choosing, to write about it in a different and equally rewarding way. I would hope it will be for the Guardian, but that particular decision can wait.
Team Sky’s champion never looked dominant in the 2017 race despite a lack of seasoned contenders, and at 32 he cannot go on defying the years
With no disrespect to Chris Froome immediately after his fourth Tour de France win, I do not believe that the Team Sky leader will make it five and thus join the ranks of the immortals: Indurain, Merckx, Hinault and Anquetil. Not next year, and probably not the year after. I appreciate that the accusations that I am indulging in anti-Team Sky, anti-Froome wishful thinking will flood in but I would like to think this is based on logical analysis as well as emotion. Not emotion in the tear‑your‑hair‑out sense, but on the feeling you get in your bones.
This was not actually the closest of the Froome Tours: that was 2015, when Nairo Quintana had the form to win, and might well have won if Movistar had been more dynamic before unleashing him at l’Alpe d’Huez. However, the 2017 race was a Tour in which Froome never looked dominant. Not winning a stage is not a sign of a lack of charisma – winning bike races is hardly simple, as we all know – but it is usually an indication that a champion is not quite what he was.
Anyone who watched Annemiek van Vleuten’s sickening, bone-crunching crash as she was heading for gold in the women’s road race at the Olympics last summer will have been roaring her over the line in the concluding stage of La Course on Saturday. Van Vleuten was a worthy winner, having battled back to fitness after suffering three spinal fractures and a severe concussion in Rio. Her victory means a Dutch rider has won the race in three of the last four years.
The previous three editions of La Course took place on the final Sunday of the Tour de France, with a sprint on the Champs-Élysées, but the organisers introduced a new format this year. On Thursday, riders raced a 67km mountain stage from Briançon to the top of the fearsome Col d’Izoard. The top finishers from Thursday qualified for a 22.5km pursuit-style individual time trial in Marseille on Saturday.