Tom English: ‘They could have afforded any doctor but they went for one who was involved in one of the many scandals that have dogged this sport’
IF WE didn’t know better we’d have assumed that Bradley Wiggins was having a laugh the other day when he complained about not getting the credit he deserves for his near-certain victory in the Tour de France, concluding today in Paris. “For me, in a positive sense, nobody’s actually praised me yet,” he said. “No-one’s actually said, ‘You know what Brad, good on you mate, well done’.”
No-one has praised him? What nonsense. Wiggins has been eulogised on a daily basis. Save for Andy Murray, he’s been the most talked-about, the most written-about, the most photographed British sportsman of this summer – and possibly any other summer in recent times. If all the breathless paeans to his brilliance and his bravery have not been enough for him then all you can say is that Wiggins, on top of being a terrific cyclist, must also be the most high-maintenance athlete in living memory with an ego as towering as some of the mountains he’s cycled up these past weeks. Nobody’s said well done? Short of lining his route with rose petals, it’s hard to see how people could have lauded him any more than they already have.
There is no questioning Wiggins’ place in the history of the Tour but some things remain unanswered. We’re talking about doping here. Wiggins’ Team Sky set themselves up on a platform of zero tolerance towards cheating. They said they would never employ anybody who was ever implicated in a scandal in the sport, but, of course, they have and they still haven’t properly explained why they’ve done it. They’ve spoken some words on the subject but, quite frankly, few of them have rung true. And now the doubters have once more been drowned out by the sound of cheering. Earlier on the Tour, when a journalist asked questions about rumours doing the rounds about Sky and how clean they actually are, Wiggins called the faceless sceptics on Twitter “f**ing w*****s”. In the press room, some journalists applauded him. There was a time when Wiggins was asking plenty of questions himself, a time when he was deeply suspicious about what he was seeing out there, but something has changed.
At the heart of this is Geert Leinders, Team Sky’s doctor since the end of 2010. Previously with the Rabobank team, Leinders came under suspicion in May when former Rabobank team manager Theo de Rooy admitted that doping was tolerated on the team until 2007. It was a “deliberate decision by the medical staff,” said De Rooy. Leinders was the chief doctor at the time and has admitted that when he was with the team, EPO was being used.
When Rabobank rider Michael Rasmussen was kicked off the 2007 Tour, the team fired de Rooy. Leinders left Rabobank in 2009. Having Leinders as part of Team Sky flies in the face of Sky’s stated policy on doping. Why is he there and what does he do? And it’s not just Leinders. Sean Yates, pictured, is Sky’s sporting director and has questions to answer about his years as part of the same set-up as Lance Armstrong at the Motorola and Discovery teams. Also, Yates tested positive when he a bike rider.
Having set out with great intentions, can we have any faith in what Sky say anymore? David Brailsford, general manager at Sky, wants these questions to stop. It’s uncomfortable for him. He has defended Leinders by saying that his work with Sky has been as pure as the driven snow but accepts that there could be reputational risk by having Leinders on the books.
This is the official story on Leinders and Sky. Brailsford says that the team employed him following widespread illnesses in the team in the 2010 Vuelta, plus the death from a virus of one of the soigneurs, Txema Gonzalez. “We had all these sick riders going: ‘What is going on? This isn’t good enough.’ And you think: ‘We’re putting these guys at risk here.’ We sat down afterwards and we said: ‘We do not know enough about looking after people in extreme heat and extreme fatigue.’”
That was the catalyst for Leinders’ arrival. “That’s why we decided to go and get him. Has he been a good doctor? Brilliant. The guy really understands. It’s not about doping, it’s about genuine medical practice.”
But here’s the thing. Sky are the most monied team out there. Rupert Murdoch is throwing cash at them. Their budget is eye-wateringly vast. They could have afforded any doctor they wanted, but they went for one who has been involved in one of the many scandals that have dogged this sport. People have a right to press Brailsford on this issue. What about the zero-tolerance? What about the vow that all employees would be clean and would be seen to be clean? And one question for Wiggins – why does he resent people expressing suspicion on Tour in precisely the same way he did some years back?
Brailsford has announced that Sky are planning to investigate Leinders’ past. This happening only now? Why? Leinders’ past is a matter of public record. It’s all out there. Everybody knows about it. Wouldn’t a team that is sold on the idea of zero-tolerance have done this before they brought him in to the stable in 2010? Brailsford says that, after the death of Gonzalez, he realised that his riders needed special expertise on the medical front, but Leinders, the special expert, hasn’t been on the Tour this year. Had any of Sky’s riders contracted a sudden illness then Leinders was not there to do the job that Brailsford says he was brought in to do.
Are we raining on Wiggins’ parade here?
No, that’s not the intention, though that will be the accusation. The cheerleaders will say that to talk of such things is to damage the sport, that Wiggins deserves better than to have somebody raising questions on this day of days. So much doubt, but one certainty.
The Wiggins of before wouldn’t have minded.