The world recently learned that 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins secretly, but legally, received an intramuscular injection of a powerful, long-acting banned corticosteroid on his way to victory. Wiggins did nothing to breach the rules of the sport but this hasn’t stopped other pro cyclists from criticizing the alleged unfairness of Wiggin’s steroid use.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) granted Wiggins therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) to use the glucocorticoid corticosteroid hormone triamcinolone (Kenacort) on three occasions while he was a member of the Team Sky pro cycling team. The revelation came as a result of the unauthorized accessing of WADA’s servers by the hacking group known as Fancy Bears.
Wiggins has emphatically and repeatedly denied any wrong-doing. All accounts suggest that he dutifully followed all relevant rules set forth by the Union Cycliste International (UCI) and WADA. Yet many cyclists suspect that Wiggins abused the WADA TUE system in order to gain an unfair performance-enhancement advantage over his opponents.
The main reason for the suspicions is that each injection appeared to be strategically timed to coincide with the beginning of one of the grand cycling tours – the 2011 Tour de France, the 2012 Tour de France and the 2013 Giro d’Italia. Wiggins allegedly used the Kenacort injections as a preventative measure to deal with hay fever. Few people are buying the explanation.
Clearly, corticosteroids like Kenacort don’t have the same strength and anabolic recovery benefits of anabolic steroids. Nonetheless, the role of corticosteroids in reducing inflammation, eliminating sensations of pain/discomfort and possibly reducing bodyweight can still result in equally dramatic, albeit different, enhancements in performance for specific endurance and ultra-endurance athletes.
Former Scottish professional cyclist David Millar
Former Scottish professional cyclist David Millar doesn’t believe Wiggins’ timing of the injections was pure coincidence. Millar thinks Wiggins intentionally timed the injection to enhance his performance. While corticosteroids are not considered to be performance-enhancing in most sports, long-acting corticosteroids like Kenacort are seen as incredibly performance-enhancing in endurance sports like cycling. Millar thinks Wiggins knew exactly what he was doing.
“If you are non-asthmatic and you take Ventolin it’s not going to give you any advantage. But if you take Kenacort it’s not only going to make a sick person better, it’s going to make a sick person better than a healthy person. That’s a very grey area.
What does Millar think should be done about the abuse of triamcinolone? If athletes are so sick that they require such a powerful drug, then perhaps they shouldn’t compete.
“I’m sure there are other forms of cortisone that could be used for allergies which aren’t so potent or performance-enhancing… We shouldn’t have to face this. If it’s that strong we shouldn’t be allowed to take it unless there is a serious issue. And if we’re suffering from that serious an issue, we shouldn’t be racing. I don’t know how a doctor could prescribe it [before a race]. I can’t fathom it.”
Dutch professional cyclist Tom Dumoulin
Dutch professional cyclist Tom Dumoulin agreed with Millar in his criticism of Wiggins. He told the local De Limburger newspaper that Wiggins’ legal use of triamcinolone really “stinks”.
“It is very strange that every time Wiggins took the medication it was in the same period. And injecting? Apparently Wiggins’ injection also worked for weeks. If that’s the case, then in my opinion you should be out of competition for weeks. This thing stinks… The system works for shit.”
As a solution to the TUE abuses, Dumoulin believed full disclosure should be required of athletes who receive TUEs for otherwise prohibited drugs even if it violates medical confidentiality.
“Then you have no hassle, everyone knows what you’re doing, even if it runs counter to medical confidentiality. Apparently you get riders cheating if you do not release it. If that helps us get closer to a clean sport, I’m for it.”
French professional cyclist Romain Bardet
French professional cyclist Romain Bardet also believed that Wiggins’ use of triamcinolone represented an obvious abuse of the WADA TUE system. He shared his views with the French newspaper Le Monde.
“We think the rules are too permissive and that there are abuses. They are too lax, so there is a flaw in the system. When there is a flaw, some minds see it as a blank check, permission to circumvent the rules…
“I do not have all the elements of the record and I have relatively little experience in there, but we see things that show that the system has flaws. These injections before the major tours, this is amazing… The timing of the injections gives one pause.”
Bardet favors a blanket ban on all corticosteroids and forcing sick athletes to sit out of the competition rather than forcing athletes to reveal the medical basis for their TUEs.
“The solutions, I do not have them. Clearly, I would prefer that we know all TUEs that everyone has. But this I do not think is the right solution. The right solution when you are sick is not to compete…
“That is really the problem: that corticosteroids are permitted. There must be a total ban, in and out of competition. We test for a whole lot of substances, and corticosteroids, which are proven to have an anti-inflammatory effect and improve performance, there is a permit for that.
“We see too many guys, it’s an open secret in the bunch, doing stuff before their objectives and make up that with a bad knee… nobody is fooled.”
Former German professional cyclist Jörg Jaksche
Former German professional cyclist Jörg Jaksche told the CyclingTips website that Wiggins abused the WADA TUE system in the very same way that he and many other cyclists did. And it was never because they really had a medical need for the drug. It was always because they wanted to use corticosteroids for performance-enhancing purposes.
“To be honest, we had the same excuse. I personally did it, as well as a lot of cyclists that I know from my era. We always said we had the same thing, the same allergy, but it was actually just for performance-enhancing.
“I think a lot of people suddenly had allergies at the Tour… It was always the same procedure. You would apply for a TUE, telling WADA that you had hay fever. Your team doctor would tell them you were having certain problems like [watering] eyes, blah blah blah. You would get 50 mg injections before the Tour. It was an old and traditional way of doping.”
British professional cyclist Jonathan Tiernan-Locke
British professional cyclist Jonathan Tiernan-Locke wasn’t even willing to defend his former teammate at Team Sky.
“I don’t want to insinuate anything, but the timing doesn’t look great. You assume if you had a need for such a thing it would be consistent throughout his career, that you’d use it year in year out, so from that point of view it looks suspicious.”
British professional cyclist Chris Froome
British professional cyclist Chris Froome helped Wiggins win the 2012 Tour de France before he himself went on to win three Tour de France titles in 2013, 2015 and 2016. You would think Froome would show a little support for Wiggins. But he didn’t. He seemed to suggest that Wiggins did indeed abuse the TUE system when asked about the Wiggin’s leaked medical records.
“I take my position in sport very seriously and I know that I have to not only abide by the rules, but also go above and beyond that to set a good example both morally and ethically.
“It is clear that the TUE system is open to abuse and I believe that this is something the UCI (cycling’s governing body) and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) need to urgently address.
All six former and current cyclists agreed that corticosteroids are very useful performance-enhancing drugs in cycling. And given the challenges of creating a TUE system that is not vulnerable to abuse, it appears that Millar is correct – TUEs will often allow sick athletes to use drugs that make them perform better than healthy athletes.