Sir Bradley Wiggins has broken his silence surrounding the use of powerful banned substances taken with permission for medical reasons before some of his biggest races, insisting that he never sought to gain an unfair advantage.
The under-fire Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour de France, was one of dozens of athletes who had their anti-doping records leaked by the hacking group Fancy Bears, believed to be linked to Russia and seeking revenge for the revelations on state-sponsored doping in that country. In an interview to be broadcast on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, Wiggins denied seeking an unfair advantage and insisted that he was suffering from breathing issues in the run-up to his Tour de France triumph in 2012 that required treatment.
His use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) in 2011, 2012 and 2013 before his biggest race of those seasons has come under scrutiny, particularly injections of the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone before his Tour win. The former cyclist Jörg Jaksche has accused Team Sky of hypocrisy and said the way Wiggins had used the drug was consistent with how it was abused in cycling’s darkest days. On Friday’s Newsnight, the doctor at Wiggins’s former team, Garmin Slipstream, said he was surprised that such an intervention was required and on Saturday the Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin told the newspaper De Limburger that he thought the episode “stinks”.
But Wiggins told Marr that although it was not mentioned in his subsequent autobiography he struggled with breathing problems in the run-up to the 2012 Tour and the prescription was an attempt to alleviate the symptoms before the Tour.
“It was prescribed for allergies and respiratory problems,” he said. “I’ve been a lifelong sufferer of asthma and I went to my team doctor at the time and we went in turn to a specialist to see if there’s anything else we could do to cure these problems,” said Wiggins. “And he in turn said: ‘Yeah, there’s something you can do but you’re going to need authorisation from cycling’s governing body [the UCI].’”
The 36-year-old, who will retire at the end of the season, said that he needed evidence from a specialist that was then scrutinised by three independent doctors as part of the process. “This was to cure a medical condition. This wasn’t about trying to find a way to gain an unfair advantage, this was about putting myself back on a level playing field in order to compete at the highest level,” he told Marr.
While his representatives had released two statements, the first saying the leak revealed nothing new and the second denying the controversial banned Belgian doctor Geert Leinders (who worked as a freelance for Team Sky in 2011 and 2012) had anything to do with the process, Wiggins had not responded until now. Wiggins, who this summer became Britain’s most decorated Olympian, also sought to explain the apparent contradiction between comments in his 2012 book in which he described the culture at Team Sky and the injections for which he had received TUEs.
“British Cycling have always had a no-needle policy, it’s been a mainstay of theirs; so it’s something I’ve grown up with as a bike rider,” he wrote in My Time, written in partnership with the Observer and Guardian cycling correspondent, William Fotheringham. “In British cycling culture, at the word ‘needle’ – or the sight of one – you go: ‘Oh shit.’ It’s a complete taboo.”
But in an answer that may raise eyebrows, he told Marr that he was referring to needles used for doping rather than for medical purposes and that the passage should be seen in that context. Wiggins said: “It was always a loaded question with regards to doping. Intravenous injections of iron, EPO etc, no one ever asked the question: ‘Have you ever had an injection by a medical professional to treat or cure a medical condition?’ There are two sides to that, and at that period of time it was very much with a doping emphasis in the question.”
Referring My Time, Wiggins added: “I wasn’t writing the book, I was writing it with a cycling journalist who’s very knowledgeable on the sport and had lived through the whole era of the Lance Armstrong era and the doping era.”
Marr then asked Wiggins whether he therefore took questions on needles to refer to doping. “All the questions at that time were very much loaded towards doping,” said Wiggins.
While Team Sky acted within the rules, questions have been asked about the timing of the TUEs and the fact that the 2012 application appeared to be preventative rather than to treat an existing condition.
Dr Prentice Steffen, the doctor at Garmin Slipstream when Wiggins finished fourth in the 2009 Tour de France, told Newsnight: “You do have to think it is kind of coincidental that a big dose of intramuscular long-acting corticosteroids would be needed at that exact time before the most important race of the season. I would say certainly now in retrospect it doesn’t look good, it doesn’t look right from a health or sporting perspective.”
The former cyclist David Millar has described the powerful performance-enhancing effects of triamcinolone, saying he “could not fathom” why a doctor would have prescribed it so close to a race. Wiggins drew a distinction between using the drug to cheat and for legitimate medical reasons. He added that Team Sky had always abided by the rules laid down by the sport’s world governing body and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
“Cycling has been through a very turbulent period the last couple of years in the post Lance Armstrong era, and obviously I won the Tour De France right at the height of that in 2012, and – and it’s still an open wound in cycling and it will take many years to get over that. Especially for the guys that are winning and competing at performing at the Tour De France,” he said.
“Whoever is leading in the sport at that time, and at the moment it’s Team Sky, they’re leading the way, and you know, they’re setting the standard for everybody. And they’re the best of what they do. Unfortunately when you’re the best of what you do sometimes comes scrutiny. Especially in a sport that has a tainted history.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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