Once again doping revelations have sent shockwaves through the sporting world in the aftermath of the Rio Olympics. But this time the drug at the centre of it all, is not actually a drug at all, but a policy that has allowed top level athletes to take supplements that, although banned, treat the athlete for long term issues such as asthma.
This is the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) process. The criteria for being granted a TUE is simple; the athlete must be able to prove that, without the substance, they would suffer serious health problems but it won’t significantly enhance their performance.
The process is then overseen by a sports governing body or the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) before being checked by three independent doctors. After this process is completed, the athlete is free to take the substance.
This news is not particularly ground-breaking and has been conducted in sport for quite a while, but the public’s ever changing cynicism towards athletes who are implicated in a doping case in any way at all, has brought the practise into questioning.
“It is important to now stress that this process has been going on for years within top level sport and there is no suggestion that the athletes revealed to have applied for a TUE are involved in any wrongdoing.”
Understandably, this has lead to the questioning of athletes who could potentially abuse this system, but to automatically assume that those involved in TUE are cheating is unfair, unhelpful and misguided.
The TUE system was originally brought into prominence by British cyclist Simon Yates. In a story that The Galleon also covered, his team Orica-GreenEDGE (now Orica-BikeExchange), failed to provide a TUE when Yates used a substance to help his asthma.
Yates was subsequently banned for three months. During this time the Tour de France was raced, the Olympics staged, the new football season kicked off and the world continued as normal without TUE’s being brought up.
However, the issue has recently been re-ignited following a hack of WADA’s database by Russian hacking group ‘Fancy Bears’.
“The hacks released the names of 66 athletes from 16 countries, 17 of whom are British, who have used TUE’s in the past. These include Olympians from all sports such as Mo Farah, Helen Glover, Justin Rose, Peter Reed, Alexandra Danson, Callum Skinner and others.”
As usual, the leak of these documents has had a significant effect on cycling, a sport that has recently been tarnished by doping stories, but also one which isn’t afraid to tackle and speak openly about its past problems.
British Tour de France champions and Olympians Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins have been particularly affected by the leak in an issue that has divided the sport.
As a result of their statuses within British sport, both have had to publically defend their use of TUE’s.
Wiggins appeared on The Andrew Marr Show to defend his use. Great Britain’s most decorated Olympian insisted that he was not trying to gain an “unfair advantage” from using the banned steroid, triamcinolone, before a major race to combat allergies and asthma. A drug that had been previously abused by former cyclists during the Lance Armstrong era, and has been described by David Millar as the “most potent” drug he used in his career.
These revelations then took focus away from the TUE saga and towards Wiggins’ use of the steroid. Questions then emerged about the extent of Wiggins’ use of the drug and if he really needed it at certain points.
This led to even more public scrutiny of Wiggins, especially when he used the drug around the time of his Tour de France victory in 2012.
As a result, this has brought wider scrutiny to the British based Team Sky squad. Manger and former British Cycling performance director, Dave Brailsford, was forced to defend Wiggins’s use of the drug and defend his own team saying that: “it was not being used to enhance performance”, and that team Sky have always been in line with doping regulations.
The team has always had a zero-tolerance approach to doping and in the past has been forced to sack staff personnel, such as Bobby Julich and Steven De Jongh, for being implicated in previous doping revelations.
The TUE issue began dividing cycling opinion as to whether or not to be supportive of Team Sky, the latter then tweeted: “if you have a zero tolerance policy, you better stick to it from the start. It failed straight from that point.”
Jonathan Vaughters, former cyclist with Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team and now team manger of Cannondale-Drapac also questioned Team Sky’s philosophy, adding: “saying “no rules were broken” concerning TUE, is that statement only true if stated reason you garnered TUE is 100% truthful.”
Fellow rider and Olympic silver medallist in the time trial, Tom Dumoulin also questioned the Brit saying that Wiggins’s pre-Tour injection “stinks”.
The Dutch rider and fellow asthmatic told Dutch newspaper De Limburger:
“And injecting? So then you have very bad asthma, different from the normal asthmatic. Or let alone athletes who only have exercise-induced asthma. Apparently Wiggins’s injection worked for weeks. If so, then in my opinion, you should sit out of competition for weeks. This thing stinks.”
Although very strong words, Dumoulin’s comments show that unlike in previous eras, cycling has shaken its omertà code and possibly unlike other sports, approaches the issue of drugs in a more open manner.
Former team mate of Wiggins, Chris Froome, then released a statement after ‘Fancy Bear’ documents revealed he was granted a TUE for prednisolone in May 2013 and April 2014. The three-time Tour de France champion wrote: “I take my position in the sport very seriously and I know that I have to not only abide by the rules but also go above and beyond that to set a good example both morally and ethically.”
The newfound openness of cycling has allowed this dialogue but as of the time of publication deadline, no other sportsperson or sporting organisation has come out as publicly as Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky have in explaining the use of a drug for a health problem.
The whole saga begs the question; when do we stop scrutinising athletes for what they use? Recently, Jamie Vardy revealed that he drinks port the night before a big match. Does this mean that we have to start questioning what is in energy gels and bars, and the affects of alcohol and adrenaline?
A summer of doping scandal surrounding the Russian Olympic team, former athletes being implicated in past doping scandals and former sporting icons reputations being dragged through the dirt because of doping, has left the public with an understandable lack of trust, and a great deal of cynicism.
Has the TUE saga completely been blown out of proportion? WADA has released an information document to try and prevent the: “tremendous amount of misinformation” regarding TUE’s. It explained that athletes should not be required to publicly defend their legitimate use of a TUE or disclose private information regarding their health.
The statement also expressed concern about the volume of media attention the saga is attracting and the nature of the ‘Fancy Bears’ hack.
In the document, which is free to download from the WADA website, they explained that:
“The TUE program is a rigorous and necessary part of elite sport; which has overwhelming acceptance from athletes, physicians and all anti-doping stakeholders.”
Clearly, and in line with Chris Froome’s statement, governing bodies such as WADA, UCI, FIFA, UEFA, and the IOC need to address the TUE process to prevent athletes from potentially abusing it in the future.
This issue does not look like it’s slowing down any time soon but it has been an interesting indicator in the changing attitude of sports fans. However, too much cynicism can lead to misguided views and un-substantiated claims. Yes, sports fans have a right to question its sporting stars when such news breaks, but to focus all the attention on one sport is foolhardy.