Commentary: How Russian propaganda is linked to Sky skepticism

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Chris Froome heads to Ruta del Sol and the cycling world piles on. It is an unsettling realization that Russian hackers are partially to thank for that.

Allow me to explain.

Computerized aggression and retaliation — hacking — is increasingly finding its way into international sport. But hacks are just the tool. What binds cycling to world politics is how that tool is being used, and by whom.

In Sochi four years ago, Russia walked away with a record 29 medals, the most of any country. Remember this? I felt like they won everything. They swept the 50km skate in cross country skiing (gold, silver, bronze). They won in luge and biathlon and speed skating and skeleton. They took home more medals than ever.

Then, they got caught. Grigory Rodchenkov, Vitaly Stepanov, and Yulia Stepanova blew the lid a systematic, government endorsed and funded a program to dope and get away with it. Rodchenkov handed dope-filled urine through a hole in a wall and got clean urine, stashed away for this purpose, back. Russia lost a bunch of those medals it won — though CAS returned some of them — and the entire nation was barred from the current round of the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Sort of. Technically. Okay, 169 of them are still there, only with fewer Russian flags out waving ab. But that’s not the point.

In retaliation for the investigation of Russia’s performance at Sochi, which was performed by WADA and the International Olympic Committee, a group called Fancy Bear hacked WADA. I’m sure you remember this as well. Fancy Bear is a hacking group that’s connected to Russian intelligence services, specifically the Main Intelligence Unit, GRU. This is according to security firms and American and European governments.

Fancy Bear stole a bunch of Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) data from WADA’s database. Lists of athletes, what they were taking, and when. Fancy Bear then released it, quite selectively, in September 2016.

The release was an effort, in the wake of Russia’s public shaming after Sochi, to direct international ire elsewhere. It was propaganda. And we embraced it. As with all effective propaganda, it used selective truth to reinforce something many were already keen to believe: That is wasn’t just the Russians cutting corners.

“We are going to tell you how Olympic medals are won,” the Fancy Bear website still reads. “We hacked World Anti-Doping Agency databases and we were shocked with what we saw.”

This ignored the fact that a TUE isn’t actually doping. It fed on widespread ignorance of the difference between taking a drug with a TUE and taking one without it. Cycling fans know this difference well because we deal with this sort of news all the time, but the average person might not. As far as the general public was concerned, American gymnast Simone Biles (who had her TUE information released) and Bradley Wiggins (ditto) were now dopers, too.

The effect of the release was not to dispute the fact of Russian cheating, but merely to sow confusion. What is doping, anyway, if these people with TUEs can do it legally? It revealed a playbook for the manipulation of public opinion through hacking and subsequent selective release of information.

You’ll recall that the Wiggins release is the one that caught cycling’s eye, because it’s when we found out he was taking injections of triamcinolone, a corticosteroid, right before major grand tours for three years in a row. That’s a bit strange.

The TUE leak was the beginning of widespread skepticism of Sky. It was the spark of cynicism, too. There were always doubters, but all it takes is a look at our own comments section to watch the shift in public perception over time. It fed on confirmation bias and metastasized. One can argue that this skepticism set in motion other leaks and investigations, like the one into Wiggins’ jiffy bag, particularly among the British press.

All of this creates an atmosphere in which the cycling world was never going give Chris Froome any benefit of the doubt when he returned his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol.

At the risk of diving into a political minefield, this is the same playbook used in Russia’s attack on American democratic institutions. A report from U.S. Intelligence agencies — jointly from the NSA, FBI, and CIA — in early 2017 stated that Putin viewed the investigation into his country’s performance in Sochi as an American-led effort. Putin was angry. The intelligence report tied Putin’s anger over Sochi directly to Russia’s decision to meddle in the American election. GRU and the Fancy Bear group hacked into the Democratic National Committee and elsewhere. The groups selectively leaked information in an effort to manipulate public opinion. Sound familiar?

But this isn’t a political story. This is a cycling story. As Froome heads to Ruta del Sol and the cycling world wags its finger in his direction, I can’t help but wonder if he and his team would have a far more positive public profile Fancy Bear had never released Wiggins’ TUE information. Would Sky have a better image if a hacking group tied to Russian intelligence had left it alone? Would we have been more likely to give Froome more leeway? That thought is unsettling.

Our collective view of Sky, and the genesis of much of our well-warranted skepticism, lies at the end of a road paved by a Russian intelligence operation. I suppose it shouldn’t really matter where the information comes from, but it feels like does.

There’s no real conclusion to this. This is not a hot take saying you should forgive Wiggins because his TUEs were revealed by a hack with ulterior motives, or that your skepticism of Froome is unfounded. That’s nonsense; a deed done is a deed done and there has been plenty of subsequent investigation to suggest that Team Sky has long had an unhealthy attraction to gray areas.

But we do have a tendency to believe that propaganda — and let’s be clear, that’s what this was — only works on other people; that we alone are rational and able to see through the fog. This time, I’d say it worked quite well on us.

Listen to a discussion of this topic on this week’s CyclingTips Podcast:

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