Team Sky zero tolerance policy or how not to address reality

Team Sky has never had an active zero tolerance policy, Team Sky has always had a zero tolerance policy on doping.

Team Sky would like you to know from their statement that

“Team Sky has had a clear position on doping from the very start. We are a clean team and have shown it is possible to win clean.”

That’s a strong top line to sell, and one which is not unique to Team Sky: Garmin Sharp along with High Road Sports and Cervelo Test Team have all made that their marquee asset.

The difference here is that none of those teams actively undermined their prime asset so badly as Team Sky do in the third paragraph:

“There is no place in Team Sky for those with an involvement in doping, whether past or present. This applies to management, support staff and riders.”

When was there ever zero tolerance?

At the outset, Team Sky relied on Scott Sunderland, who had been at CSC in the Basso years. It’s no slight on Sunderland, but there must have been an astounding naivety in play during the recruitment process to ignore that he’d been part of the operation that put convicted doper Ivan Basso on the Tour de France podium in 2005, then won him the Giro in 2006 before he got the ‘tin tack’ from the 2006 Tour and CSC before the season was out and subsequently got banned for his association with Dr Fuentes.

Given that this was all current and available information at the time Sunderland was engaged, it’s hard not to suggest that ‘wilful ignorance’ might be as apposite as ‘astoundingly naive’.

At its formation it recruited Sean Yates, a rider who has an unsanctioned involvement with doping as a rider and an unproven connection through his employment on at Motorola and as a directeur sportif at Discovery Channel and Astana.  A simple search of the cycling press archives would have turned up questions about Sean Yates’ own failure to stay right side of line. It’s interesting to note that British cycling had defended him.

In 2010 it recruited Dr Gert Leinders on a freelance basis and on the quiet, hoping no one would notice his past employment at Rabobank in a period when you might run out of fingers to count the doping stories about the team. The defensive attitude to criticism and subsequent non-renewal of contract. There is nothing intelligent or appropriate about the way Sky approached this matter.

Brailsford likes to emphasise how Team Sky builds on the British Cycling values of clean sport and attention to details. In the wake of all the post-Armstrong upheaval he told William Fotheringham in The Guardian

 “The information now, the context now, is different to what it was before. I’ve read the report and found it quite shocking, the light of that will direct the discussions”

Which would be the case if most of the information and context hadn’t been freely available  in L.A. Confidentiel : Les secrets de Lance Armstrong since 2004 and latterly From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France

The great British conflict of interests

David Brailsford is British Cycling Performance Director. He is also Team Principal of Team Sky.

In a previous post on Lance Armstrong I wrote

“Take for example Emma O’Reilly’s account of effectively being asked to traffick substances across the Franco-Spanish border. It had to be taken on trust that David Walsh had got a second account corroborating events. It turns out that was Simon Lillistone, O’Reillly’s former husband (link is to £ Sunday Times site).”



Lillistone should be known to Brailsford through British Cycling. An inquiring mind with an attention to detail would have been aware of the links.

O’Reilly according to the New York Daily News has testimonials from Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton. Here is that testimonial:

“It has been amazing to have Emma from the Body Clinic Hale as part of my wider Olympic performance team.”

Brailsford with his Great Britain hat on was OK with one of his charges receiving treatment from someone previous involved with “industrial doping”. It is not credible that as GB Performance Director he was not aware of O’Reilly’s contact with Pendleton given the precision which has so publicly been attributed to the planning of the Olympic programme .

As Michael Ashenden tells The Guardian

“They [Sky] have zero tolerance for doping. Great. But what constitutes doping according to them? Is it an anti-doping rule violation? Is it grounds for suspicion? Or are they merely relying on what the athlete tells them?”

It would seem that zero tolerance is only as strict as that which can be put in place without outside influence. As a policy it seems to have been formulated in the absence of Brailsford’s own experience.

Given The tale of David Millar, Dr Cecchini and Max Sciandri in Bad Blood: The Secret Life of the Tour de France,  do we assume then that Brailsford believes that his role in rehabilitating his friend David Millar as an international rider and selecting him for Great Britain was a past mistake that he has learned from and doesn’t wish to repeat?

Or that both Yates and Sciandri, despite questions about their past have been valuable servants of British Cycling’s current boom? There is a laughable absurdity to the fact that for years Britain’s best young riders were schooled by a protege and friend of Cecchini.

Barry, to some degree, was an open secret – questions and eyebrows were raised when he was hired by Sky given his past employers. Through his Team High Road experience, there was evidence of an attitude change and it’s hard to imagine that in the process of referencing him, Team Sky’s recruitment policy wouldn’t have had indications as to his past.

Likewise, Mick Rogers’ Ferrari connection was pretty widely discussed and a rumour that I’d certainly been aware of before he signed for Team Sky. What does that say for the quality of due diligence being undertaken by management? It’s all well and good looking at the numbers on their SRM, but that seems to have been the only thing they looked at.

Yet, on BBC Radio 5 live Brailsford praised Barry and his attitude at Team Sky in the same breath as effectively handing him his cards, despite being a retired rider.

All change, no change

It’s surreal to hear talk that the policy hasn’t changed, never changed and has always been adherred to given Brailsford admits to talking to Neal Stephens, formerly of Festina and Liberty-Seguros and took Michael Barry on face value despite allegations that were current at the time of his hiring.

The PR campaign around this announcement is prejudicial to riders who decide not to re-sign for reasons other than doping, because already any rider who announces they are going elsewhere is open to speculation about their reasons for doing so. It may blight their career and reputation in the current climate of fear.

Will they make clear which staff are which? And does it even matter if they do?

All their policy and declaration contribute to the creeping sense of keep your mouth shut and your head down, which is precisely what led to omertà.

If was sky rider who had past issues, I would start looking for a 2014 deal and brazen it out. Because there are better places to be than where you career development is less important than Team Sky clinging on to their last vestiges of dignity in a PR battle they lost before they even started.

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  • http://twitter.com/kenem Ken Matheson

    An excellent piece, expressing all of my own thoughts and a few more. The cracks are showing and Brailsford must now realise that he can’t run Sky in the same covert way that he runs Team GB.
    Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/ddraver DaveK

    What would you rather they do Alex? “Offer a home to an ex doper as long as you cry a bit” like Garmin or totally ignore it like the other 16 teams in the pro peloton?

  • http://twitter.com/drjones97 Jeff Jones

    Good piece. Re: the zero tolerance policy.  Dave Brailsford admitted it had been relaxed in this interview (Feb 15 2011) http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/bike-blog/2011/feb/15/dave-brailsford-full-transcript

    Q: But you have changed in that you are willing to hire people who might have been tainted by doping in the past?

    DB: I think it’s very dependent on the individual and his history. You have your anti-doping policy and belief but you need to weigh it up and, actually, if the need of the team in performance was such and there was an individual that was generally considered in the ‘positive’ group, to excuse the pun, then he couldn’t be ruled out

    (make of that what you will)

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  • http://twitter.com/gnu_mutant gnu_mutant

    Thank you for putting to words what many of us were thinking.