It never fails to astound me how many wheezing sickly asthmatics there are in the world of elite sport. And how many champions have overcome chronic obscure cardiovascular ailments whose names and symptoms take several pages of fine print to describe and which can be treated only with powerful doses of drugs of the sort that – were they used nefariously – would enable an ageing bull elephant to outrun – handily – a young female cheetah in her prime.
Perhaps this is why in my youth I was never sought after by the world’s talent-spotting coaches: I was simply too healthy.
I have followed with great interest the recent revelations – courtesy of the Russian hacking group Fancy Bears – of the therapeutic uses of a powerful corticosteroid by none other than Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins. It should be stressed of course, straight away, that there is no implication that he or his team (Sky) broke any rules. Far from it. He – they – applied for and received the relevant doctor’s notes and the official sanction for using these otherwise forbidden drugs. And used them. Three times. Just before the Tour de France (twice) and once just before the Giro d’Italia.
Legal, yes, but boy, they sure weren’t very forthcoming about it. Not a word did any of them breathe about these TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) until their use of them splashed into the public domain, although they often crowed – or is it purred? – about their ‘no-needles policy’ and zero tolerance for doping.
The timing of these certificates and subsequent injections (just before major races), the choice of drug involved and the perception of secrecy around it all has raised eyebrows among physicians and fellow racers – including former doper and now anti-drug campaigner David Millar who used the very same drug (without sanction) during his drug-cheat career and described it as scary and the most powerful drug he ever (ab)used.
According to Wiggins and Team Sky, he required this particular corticosteroid before each of these three major races to ease the symptoms of severe pollen allergies and asthma simply so he could breathe properly and race unimpeded – achieve ‘a level playing field’ as Wiggins put it in a very soft interview with David Marr on the BBC, an interview which then segued from these potentially uncomfortable topics into Wiggins thoughts on fashion and politics.
How interesting it is, then, to read in Wiggins’ autobiography My Time, how fit he claimed to be that summer – how he was at the top of his game, how wonderfully healthy he had been and missing almost no days in training as he prepared for the Tour de France. And yet now we hear he was suffering terribly. What a brave little soldier. Nary a mention of asthma, or pollen allergies.
He does mention needles in the book though – but only to say he never used them, no injections, ever, other than for vaccinations and occasionally having to be put on a drip when he became dehydrated.
With a belated attempt at sophistry that Bill and Hillary Clinton do much better, Wiggins has since explained that the book was ghost written and so the questionable passages in it were not really his responsibility and besides, the no injections bit meant that he had never injected drugs illegally. One suspects that given the uncomfortable passages in the book, and the eyebrows they raise, he may wish to rename it My Petard for future editions.
Again – Wiggins and Sky sought and received the necessary clearances for him to take the drugs. He broke no rules, but an odour of sharp practice has settled over him and his team and his accomplishments. Or as fellow racer Tom Dumoulin put it when he heard about it: this stinks.