Cycling: Fairytales likely to produce more frogs

By Kris Shannon

Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France with Team Sky in 2012. Picture / Photosport
Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France with Team Sky in 2012. Picture / Photosport

Appropriately enough, in yet another eventful week in the world of doping, there has been not one high-profile failed test.

No tearful concessions, no medals revoked, no tell-all interviews with Oprah.

What there has been no shortage of, however, is the descending fog of suspicion that usually envelopes athletes in the months and sometimes years before the admissions eventually arrive.

We cannot, of course, convict athletes based on conjecture and supposition alone. But, equally, occasionally the circumstantial evidence becomes overwhelming and, given the chemists continue to lap the testers, a lack of a positive test is no defence in the modern day.

The downfall of Lance Armstrong - the most adamant athlete in terms of doping denials - offered the clearest example of that. And Armstrong's case continues to act as another reminder: if a sporting story seems too good to be true, remember that a fairytale is a fabrication often intended to deceive.

Which brings us to this week.

Team Sky have long positioned themselves as the saviours of cycling, winning four of the last five Tours de France after riding into sport with an explicit zero-tolerance policy to doping.

Each rider and staff member on the British outfit was made to sign an agreement stating they had no past or present involvement in doping and, with first Bradley Wiggins and then Chris Froome leading the way, Team Sky seemed to spark a new dawn after Armstrong's exit ostensibly ended the dark days of professional cycling.

This week, though, at a British parliamentary inquiry into a scandal sparked when Russian hackers revealed the therapeutic use exemptions issued to Wiggins, among others, MP Damian Collins said "the credibility of Team Sky is in tatters".

That damning indictment came after the team were unable to account for a large order of the controversial corticosteroid triamcinolone. Alleged to aid recovery and assist in weight loss - a couple of handy properties, perhaps, for cyclists planning a three-week, 3500km ride around France - the drug is legal in competition if an athlete has an exemption.

But the amount Team Sky received raised the eyebrows of UK Anti-Doping chief executive Nicole Sapstead: "Either an excessive amount was ordered for one person," she told Parliament, "or quite a few people had similar problems."

Wiggins walked away from sport after winning his fifth gold medal in Rio, but Armstrong for one can explain how retirement offers no sanctuary from doping doubts.

Record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps was another athlete who made the 2016 Olympics his last and, in a move he may have immediately come to regret, this week injected himself into the performance-enhancing drug debate.

Testifying before a congressional hearing into improving anti-doping measures, Phelps said he "never felt" the rest of the field was clean when he raced in international competition.

Bold words - and probably true - but a sentiment that was greeted with understandable exasperation by one of Phelps' former rivals.

"I'm not suggesting you're a cheat," began Milorad Cavic, forced by Phelps to settle for silver in the 100m butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Games, "but your recovery rate is nothing short of science fiction".

Which is an accurate summation of where we currently sit when it comes to doping in sport. Athletes are achieving otherworldly results - you know, the whole point of sport - and that serves only to arouse more suspicion.

And so it should. Enjoy the feats of Team Sky, by all means, and feel free to continue regarding Phelps as one of the all-time greats. Just don't be surprised if, at the end of any sporting fairytale, the hero turns into a frog.

- NZ Herald

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