Every sport has a murky, gray area separating gamesmanship from low-grade cheating.
Soccer players flop around like rag dolls in hopes of drawing a foul. Pitchers coat the ball in loogies and vaseline to make it dart past a swinging bat. Water polo players kick, jab, and gouge each other whenever the referees look away. Even Ironman triathletes ride as close as possible to the no-draft zone in hopes of gaming the system.
When I first examined the recent kerfuffle involving Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins, and the leaked TUE information, I saw a situation that falls on the gamesmanship side of this murky divide. Yes, Wiggins used a banned substance in the lead-up to the Tour de France in 2011 and 2012, and the Giro d’Italia in 2013. Yes, the banned substance was a corticosteroid, which have long been used by boxers, NFL players, and, yes, cyclists as a weapons-grade version of Ibuprofen.
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OK, this is the part of the column where I say that Wiggins and Team Sky have stated that they obtained the corticosteroids to treat his lifelong asthma, and that the substance wasn’t used to boost his performance. The fact that the substance he took is a popular PED was, like, you know, just a coincidence.
So yes, at first glance, I did not view this as cheating, even of the low-grade variety. Whether you like it or not, Wiggins and Sky went through the steps to legally obtain a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) from the UCI. The onus was on the UCI and the World Anti Doping Agency to tell Wiggo and Sky to buzz off, but neither organization did.
Sure, it’s a slimy brand of gamesmanship, but not drastically worse than the soccer player who flops, the base runner who steals the pitch signals, or the NFL defensive back who fakes an injury to stop the clock.
Over the past few days, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve gradually inched Wiggins across the murky line toward the low-grade cheating side things. What changed my mind were a handful of conversations with PED experts and retired professional cyclists, plus the avalanche of good writing that has appeared on the subject.
Here’s the thing: The substance that Wiggins took legally — a potent corticosteroid called triamcinolone acetonide (Kenacort) — is a familiar PED amongst cyclists of a certain age. It’s not some obscure, mysterious substance, it’s doping’s version of the Tic Tac. If you raced during cycling’s full-gas doping era, Kenacort was just another performance booster in your war chest of banned pills, creams, and vials of injectable solutions.
And Kenacort isn’t just uber-Ibuprofen that helps an athlete overcome aches and pains. Cyclists use it primarily as a way to burn off pesky chunks of weight in the lead up to a big race. Yeah, it’s a bona-fide corner cutter.
And that’s why this whole thing isn’t just gamesmanship. Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky found a way to take a substance that everybody in the cycling world knows will make a cyclist’s life easier.
Like all endurance sports, cycling is built on process: You train, you rest, and you race. If you’re a rider preparing for a grand tour, you also spend a few weeks or months cutting calories hopes of getting down to race weight. Yeah, you starve yourself.
Guess what — starving yourself sucks! One could write volumes on the zany methods cyclists use to starve themselves, from locking their cupboards and buying smaller dishes, to hiring food gurus and dietitians, to eating nothing but boiled vegetables and gruel.
For some cyclists, weight-centric neurosis is a big deal. Every extra ounce hangs over their heads, especially on climbs. It’s the same brand of neurotic thinking that persuaded racers in the 1980’s to drill holes into every metal component on their bicycles, or modern-day racers to tinker with their heavy gear. Shave the weight or haul it up the hill.
So let’s say you’re a grand tour hopeful who is entering the Tour de France with the weight of your nation on your back. Maybe you drank too many pints of beer in the offseason, or you couldn’t say no to the peanut M&Ms or the post-meal dessert. For whatever reason, you’re just not as light as you wanted to be. There’s a solution for you: Kenacort. It’s like holding a blowtorch up to a stick of butter.
Of course melting away a few pounds doesn’t transform a rider into a grand tour champion. Kenacort isn’t rocket fuel, like EPO or blood transfusions. It’s a comparatively low-grade booster.
But allowing riders like Wiggins to take it sets a dangerous precedent for a sport that’s trying to create space between its current generation and the dopes from the bygone era. Let’s say you’re a staigiare and you learn that your team recently exploited a loophole to allow its marquee rider to get down to race weight the old-school way. When it comes time to starve yourself before a race, why not ask team management if they’ll seek out that loophole on your behalf?
Every sport has its way of punishing low-grade cheating. If umpires catch a MLB pitcher using a belt sander to scuff up the baseball, they’ll hand down a suspension from between six to 10 games. NBA players who flop earn a $5,000 fine for a second offense (first one gets a warning). Tom Brady got dinged four games for deflating footballs (sorry, Patriots fans, it’s been proven).
What do we do with Wiggins?
It’s tough to say. I honestly do not believe Wiggins won the 2012 Tour de France because he took Kenacort. He crushed that race, and finished 6:19 ahead of third-place Vincenzo Nibali (Froome was second). Would a couple of extra ounces of chocolate chub slowed him down that much? It’s hard to say.
No matter if it’s gamesmanship or low-grade cheating, I’m not sure we need to punish Wiggins or Sky. Perhaps the whole world knowing Wiggins took Kenacort under Sky’s guidance is their just dessert.
And as we now know, Brad Wiggins loves dessert.