UCI president Brian Cookson has given a tentative indication of confidence in Team Sky and British Cycling, saying that it would be unexpected if it was shown that either organisation had acted inappropriately in relation to Bradley Wiggins.
“I’m going to have to do the same thing everything else is going to have to do, which is wait for the UK Anti-Doping inquiry,” Cookson said on Wednesday. “The whole GB cycling team, and then Team Sky, was set up to have the highest standards of integrity and ethics, in anti-doping and every other field.
“If there’s been any slipping from those standards, I’ll be very surprised, but also very disappointed. Let’s see what UKAD comes up with.”
Cookson was speaking to various media organisations, including CyclingTips, at the Santos Tour Down Under in Australia. His opinion was sought both as UCI president and also as a former president of British Cycling. He headed the latter organisation between 1997 and 2013.
He then became UCI president, beating the-then leader Pat McQuaid in end of term elections.
Wiggins, Team Sky and British Cycling have been under scrutiny in recent months. The 2012 Tour de France winner was thrust into the spotlight in mid-September when a leak by Russian hackers Fancy Bear showed that he had received a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for triamcinolone acetonide, otherwise known as Kenalog.
He received injections of the corticosteroid prior to the 2011 and 2012 Tours, as well as the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
His usage of the substance became public on September 14. Eleven days later he justified it, saying on September 25 that he had been sick on those occasions.
“It was prescribed for allergies and respiratory problems,” he told BBC journalist Andrew Marr on BBC television on Sunday morning. “I’ve been a lifelong sufferer of asthma, and I went to my team doctor at the time. We went in turn went to a specialist to see if there’s anything else we could do to cure these problems.
“And he in turn said, ‘yep, there’s something you can do but you’re going to need authorisation from your cycling’s governing body.’”
A TUE for the corticosteroid was subsequently granted by former UCI doctor Mario Zorzoli, who has been accused by some in the past of being too lax in giving such permissions. The UCI has defended his work.
Wiggins’ use of triamcinolone acetonide was questioned by some because in his 2012 autobiography My Time he said that the only injections he had received during his life were for immunisations and some drips. He also said in the book that he had no health issues in the run up to the 2012 Tour [he won the Criterium du Dauphine in 2011 and 2012 – ed.] yet, on the basis of the TUE, was given a substance which is usually only used as a final measure in treating serious respiratory issues.
The use of triamcinolone acetonide is also controversial as former dopers David Millar, Michael Rasmussen and Joerg Jaksche all said that they abused the TUE system to gain permission to take what they said was a potent performance-enhancing drug.
The reported benefits include weight loss and a boost in form. According to Jaksche and Rasmussen, riders would take subsequent injections of the substance after the initial administration, with its long half-life in the body making it impossible to tell that it was being topped up.
Under the WADA Code, ill riders can only take substances which restore them to their previous level; if it improves their performance, it is considered a breaking of the rules.
Its TUE regulations include the following points:
2) The Rider would experience a significant impairment to health if the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method were to be withheld in the course of treating an acute or chronic medical condition.
3) The therapeutic use of the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method would produce no additional enhancement of performance other than that which might be anticipated by a return to a state of normal health following the treatment of a legitimate medical condition.
4) There is no reasonable therapeutic alternative to the use of the otherwise Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method.
Cookson was asked if he felt that triamcinolone acetonide could be considered a performance-enhancing drug.
“Wiggins’ TUE was in line with the regulations applicable and was granted appropriately,” he answered. “I don’t think it’s for me to say. He and his doctors applied for a TUE in the system that was in place at the time. It was granted, and the treatment was given, as I understand it. Let’s wait for what UK Anti-Doping has to say.”
He was then asked if, under current circumstances, such a TUE request would be approved.
“Since then, in the very first year that I was president, we had a controversial TUE situation at the Tour of Romandie, you’ll remember,” he replied. “We looked at the process that was under way, and we decided that it needed to be strengthened. We’ve done that, and we now have a TUE committee of three doctors, who must agree unanimously before any TUE is issued.
“All of those TUEs, as always, have been entered on the ADAMS system, so WADA is fully aware of them. That system is outsourced to the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, so there’s no involvement from me or UCI management or the board in the process.
“I think we’ve now got as good a TUE system as any sport. I think if you look at the number of TUEs issued, it was down to 13 in 2015, and I’m just waiting for the figures from 2016, but I think it’s about the same. Those were TUEs issued by the UCI. There may well have been more issued by other anti-doping agencies, but the numbers have come down hugely. I don’t think it’s a massive problem in our sport any more. We have made sure the system is as robust as we possibly can within the WADA Code.”
He added that because he is not a doctor, he could not give an opinion as to whether such a TUE would have been granted in 2017 or not.
‘I’m sure that everybody involved behaved appropriately’
The news in September about Wiggins’ TUEs was followed by further controversy several weeks later when, on October 6, the Daily Mail newspaper reported that a package was delivered from Britain to France in 2011.
It said that British Cycling employee Simon Cope had travelled to France via Switzerland on June 12, the final day of that year’s Critérium du Dauphiné.
It stated that Cope made the trip at the request of Team Sky and then-team doctor Richard Freeman. The suggestion was that Freeman and Wiggins then had a private session on the team bus after the final stage of the race.
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford initially denied this happened, but two aspects of that denial were subsequently proven to be inaccurate.
He, Wiggins’-then coach Shane Sutton, British Cycling’s current president Bob Howden and British Cycling Ethics Commision chair Dr George Gilbert were called before a parliamentary select committee hearing on December 19.
While the others said they were unaware of what the package contained, Brailsford said it was the legal decongestant Fluimucil.
Since then no proof of that has been provided, and UK Anti Doping is continuing to look into the matter. The parliamentary select committee has said that it is concerned at shortcomings in the initial testimony and said that it may call witnesses at a later point.
Cookson was asked on Wednesday if he was surprised or disappointed to hear that British Cycling members were travelling through Europe with packages.
“Well, I think that’s an ongoing inquiry, and it’s probably better that I don’t comment at the moment,” he replied. “But as far as I am concerned, I was not aware of any day-to-day operations of that nature. But I’m sure that everybody involved behaved appropriately. We’ll see what comes out of the inquiry.”
So would he speak at before the parliamentary select committee if summoned?
“Yes, of course,” he answered. “Not that I could tell them anything. The president and chairman of the board doesn’t know everything that’s mailed out of the office, or taken out, but I’m confident that the people involved behaved appropriately.”
He was then asked if he was not surprised that staff members were transporting packages through customs without being aware of the contents.
“A lot has been made of that, but I think the reality is that teams are constantly on the move,” he said. “They are constantly having things brought to them, and then back to base, so it’s perhaps not surprising that something like that happened. We’ll see what the audit trail reveals about what was in the package, where it went, who took it, and so on.”
Cookson said that he did not know what was in the package, and rejected a suggestion that he perhaps should have as head of British Cycling at the time.
“Come on, there are thousands of objects delivered, correspondences coming and going all the time,” he said. “Of course I wouldn’t know what was taken in a package on one day in 2011.”
So has he asked anyone since what was in the package?
“Well it’s not my responsibility any more,” he said. “I feel… you’re hinting on this a bit, that there is a bit of a conflict for me here, so I’m keeping out of it. It’s a matter for UK Anti-Doping to investigate. If they ask me, I’ll cooperate.”
The Briton admitted that it was frustrating that a high-profile athlete was in the headlines in relation to controversial allegations, but said that the investigation should be allowed run its course before conclusions are make.
“Let’s see what comes out of the inquiry. I think that the important thing here is that we let that UK Anti-Doping inquiry take its course.
“If we look at the issue in general, as far as I’m concerned, when I was president of British Cycling, setting up a professional team that we had a major involvement was an important thing that we did. And the reason we did it is because we wanted to make sure that team had the highest possible standards of ethics and integrity.
“If that slipped during that period, I’d be very surprised and disappointed. But let’s see wait and see what the outcome is.”