Fixed it for you: The Matthew Syed dismissal of whistleblower fears

29 Jul 2016 Posted by

Earlier this week, Matthew Syed of the Times produced a piece in which he dismissed an account I’d posted on twitter about an elite level coach who had told me of his fears of reprisal if he were ever to reveal what he knows about doping in elite sport.  Syed took offence, though it had arguably been building at the typical Tour de France discourse.  He produced a piece that Steve Magness, one of the whistleblowers who stands as an example of the harsh reality of going against the party line, described as “ignorant and harmful words”

Magness is absolutely right.  They were. And so I had a little time to kill, and I’ve gone through Syed’s piece and fixed it for you.  I did it in a fair rush, so I apologise for any typos.  My intention is primarily to defend the respect of whistleblowers, whose real fears are a source of Syed “giggling”.  He is also courageous enough to invite anonymous tip-offs at the same time as dismissing an account of a coach, which suggests I’m lying, or he’s just really not that interested.  Or both.

A secondary aim is just to raise awareness over some of the issues around Sky, and the things that Syed and others have overlooked and dismissed as innuendo.  It was never offered as proof, just a suggestion for some pointed questions on glaring inconsistencies.  Use it, don’t use it.

I’ve divided it up, paragraph by paragraph.  Syed’s original words are in blue, italicised, and mine are beneath it in regular black text.

In a series of posts this week, Ross Tucker, a South African blogger and academic who often retweets individuals who insinuate that Team Sky are involved in systematic doping, attempted to deal with a wrinkle in that argument: not a single whistleblower has emerged from the massed ranks of Team Sky or British Cycling to make such allegations

In a series of tweets this week, Ross Tucker, a South African sports scientist who is part of a group of cycling followers who has acquired a skepticism for the sport after three decades of doping controversies, attempted to deal with a wrinkle in [this] argument:  to date no whistleblower has emerged from the massed ranks of Team Sky or British Cycling to make such allegations.  Firstly, I must just make clear that I’m assuming that Tucker offers this as a direct example about cycling – it’s quite possible it was a general comment on whistleblowers in sport, but I’ve got a Sky-mindset, so I’ll use it as though it applies only to Sky and cycling.

Why is this? Well, according to Tucker, these would-be Deep Throats are worried for their lives. He posted sinister possibilities about a “loss of future opportunity” and “real danger”. People just don’t “appreciate the magnitude of what it takes to come out & talk — you risk everything”, he said. As for investigative journalism, well, the coverage is apparently “controlled” and “fan-based”.

Why is this?  Tucker relates the story of an elite level coach who expresses a sentiment that has been seen commonly in sport over the last decade, where would be Deep Throats are worried for their lives and livelihoods.  He posted sinister possibilities about a “loss of future opportunity” and “real danger”.  People just just don’t “appreciate the magnitude of what it takes to come out & talk — you risk everything”, he said.  His account of an elite level coach who expressed fears over his safety and career were he to expose his knowledge of doping practices in the sport of track and field is merely the latest in a series of such accounts.

The harrowing tales of whistleblowers include those of Renee Anne Shirley, who had to flee Jamaica when she pointed out a dearth of testing, and most recently, the Stepanovs and Grigory Rodchenkov, both Russian whistleblowers who have helped exposed that country’s massive state-sponsored doping progammes.  They are currently in hiding in the USA, fearful of retribution.  As for investigative journalism, well, Tucker points out that the coverage of doping is apparently “controlled” and “fan-based”.  An exception to this is an excellent piece by Bonnie Ford, who describes the plight of whistleblowers, suggesting that Tucker is not far off in his assessment.

I was reminded, while reading this fantasy, of a famous comment by Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, about “the advantages of theft over honest toil”. You see, it is easy to steal someone’s moment of glory. It is easy to cast aspersions, cravenly worded to avoid a libel action. You need only a laptop, a social-media account and time on your hands. But to create one of the most successful sports operations of recent times? Well, that requires toil, resilience, sacrifice and leadership.

I was reminded, while reading this disturbingly familiar account, of a famous comment by Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, about “the advantages of theft over honest toil”. You see, it is easy to simply accept a narrative handed down to you by those who are benefitting from that very narrative, especially when you too derive a benefit.  It is easy to write sycophantic pieces which ensure continued access to the inner sanctum of sport, cravenly worded to sell newspapers.  You need only a laptop, permission from those who oversee the system, a social-media account and a desire to  experience elite sport on the front lines, especially after you’ve retired from it yourself. But to actively seek  evidence for the story nobody wants to hear? Well, that requires toil, resilience, sacrifice and courage, as history has shown, for both the whistleblowers and the journalists who attempt to expose any form of corruption in any domain, sport included.  As an aside, the conflation of whistleblowers with journalists is only really possible if the journalist is indulging an enormous ego – the journalist’s responsibility is to seek sources, not to insert themselves into the story.

But let us examine the argument that journalists and whistleblowers are nervous to speak out about Team Sky by briefly examining how journalism actually works. If you dish the dirt on corruption, you win awards. You are eulogised. If, like the excellent David Walsh of The Sunday Times, you find probative evidence against a star such as Lance Armstrong, you end up in a Hollywood movie.

The possibility that truths about doping may not emerge owing to fear of reprisal is worrying, and so let us examine the argument that journalists and whistleblowers are nervous to speak out about Team Sky by briefly examining how journalism actually works (according to friends who have told me this). If you dish the dirt on corruption, and if you end up vindicated, then you win awards. You are eulogised.  On the other hand, if, like the excellent David Walsh of The Sunday Times, you offer a narrative that goes against the dream of a Tour of Redemption, and you “spit in the soup” (to borrow commonly used cycling parlance), then you find yourself blacklisted, shunned from the sport. Not only are you excluded by the athletes and their teams, but also by fellow journalists who are afraid to be seen eating or riding with you, in case they too are locked out of the inner sanctum.  David Walsh relates such tales in the first of his books, when he had pursued Lance Armstrong and written the story of doping, rather than that of hope and survival against cancer.  Ultimately, Walsh was vindicated when disgruntled Floyd Landis launched an accusation that would bring the Feds into the story and reveal that Walsh was correct.  Then, and only then, did Walsh end up in a Hollywood movie.  He now has access to the inner circles at Team Sky.

The alternative for a journalist, based on the far more common experience, is to report stories from within the sport, to offer a narrative that appeals to the target market of the readership of the paper in which the articles will appear.  It is indisputable that there is more job security, more money from books, and more popularity in toeing the desired line.    Who can forget the vicious attacks on Paul Kimmage by Lance Armstrong when the Irish journalist pursued him before and after his comeback?  Kimmage found no allies, only insults, criticism, loss of a job, lawsuits and isolation.  Far better to add pleasant ingredients to the soup, lest the pursuit of truth not end up in the spectacular exposure that Landis catalysed for Walsh’s eventual vindication, some 12 years later.

Any journalist who exposed Team Sky — I mean really exposed, rather than offering innuendo — would be the toast of the industry. It would dominate coverage across the globe. That is why (like every journalist involved in sport), I have sought to discover precisely such evidence.

Any journalists who attempts to expose Team Sky – I mean really challenge the narrative about marginal gains, to ask about the unparalleled transformation of Chris Froome, co-incident with the hiring of a known doping doctor in Geert Leinders, the TUE policy, tramadol accusations, inconsistencies about transparency and data, the failed test of Tiernan-Locke and the suspicious blood values of Henao – would almost certainly be excluded from any access to the team in future, such is David Brailsford’s vice-like grip on media access.  That journalist would be toast.  Not of the industry.  Just toast.  That is why many journalists in sport have sought to avoid the questions that may show the story in an unfavourable light.

Ever since Team GB started doing well in track cycling under the leadership of Sir Dave Brailsford, I have asked questions. From virtually nowhere, the team started to dominate, eventually winning eight golds in Beijing and eight more in London 2012. I have interviewed more than 20 people — cyclists, scientists, support staff, officials — involved in that transformation.

Ever since Team GB started doing well in track cycling under the leadership of Sir Dave Brailsford, I have asked questions. From virtually nowhere, the team started to dominate, which naturally aroused enormous suspicions given the sport’s checkered past and the presence of so many of those dopers still in the sport. I have interviewed more than 20 people (but fewer than 25?) — cyclists, scientists, support staff, officials — involved in that transformation.  All are currently benefitting from the bubble of success that is Sky and GB cycling, but I took them at their word, from within that bubble.

My approach in this regard has been the same as the one I took to write “Bounce” – I regarded the absence of evidence as evidence of absence (of proof).  It’s how I managed to construct a straw man about deliberate practice sufficiency and 10,000 hours at the expense of science.  I didn’t care much for the absence of evidence for marginal gains though – my book proves it, whether or not there is any proof of their benefit.

Granted, I’ve yet to pursue Leinders, or Jonathan Tiernan Locke’s story and possible explanations have not crossed my mind. I haven’t fully investigated the bilharzia claims, how a condition can be severe enough to affect performance so dramatically yet remain undetected.  I don’t know much about Shane Sutton either.  All these are trees that require some shaking, and hard.

I’ve not asked how it is that Team Sky, famous for their self-promotion of state-of-the-art sports science and unparalleled attention to detail, failed to address Chris Froome’s diet, instead letting him get fat for an elite cyclist despite having amazing potential (so we are told), and then leaving it up to his fiancé to trigger the change that would produce one of the greatest cyclists the world has ever seen, only weeks before he was about to be cut from the Team Sky roster.  Nor have I addressed whether pineapple in water and a falsely promoted ban on Nutella, and a myriad of other claimed methods that have been around for decades have any performance enhancing effect.  Indeed, I wrote a book on marginal gains, and so I assume it all to be true, or my book would belong in the fiction section of the Waterstones.

I have also not sought to ask the journalists who are NOT here in France with inside access to the team about their experiences.  Or some who are?  I recall how Walsh and Ballester were basically told to change the tone of their stories when Lance first soared to victory atop a Tour de France summit, because the narrative that the sport was the same as it ever was would not sell papers.  But a story of hope, that’s attractive.  I am sure this never happens anymore, not to me or my colleagues, but it might…

In that regard, I’m guilty of survivorship bias, and I have no idea whether they’ve been excluded as a result of their mistrust of the party-line.

I asked each about the methods and, often directly, about doping. I even offered to provide anonymity, to give them the maximum incentive to speak out. At least three were resentful about British Cycling, not least because they felt they had been treated unfavourably. But none said they had been offered drugs or had seen anything suspicious.

I asked each about the methods and, often directly, about doping.  They all denied it, which has echoes of Lance Armstrong and hundreds of other dopers, even once caught. I even offered to provide anonymity, to give them the maximum incentive to speak out.  The fact that none did suggests a mistrust of the media, or perhaps of me, and a fear that if their story did emerge it would be impossible to protect their anonymity, and their careers would be ruined, just as Floyd’s, Tyler’s and Jorg Jaksche’s were in the past.  Valverde and Contador, among others, have shown that the best approach in this sport is steadfast refusal to admit guilt, and that forgiveness awaits those who value the composition of the soup.  Ricardo Ricco, on the other hand, stands testament to the danger of speaking out, even when long retired.  It is no surprise that even though at least three were resentful about British Cycling, not least because they felt they had been treated unfavourably, none said they had been offered drugs or had seen anything suspicious.  Those involved in the sport understand how it has treated those who threaten its fabric.

The same is true of Team Sky. When Walsh was given inside access, he saw nothing dubious, the story appearing under the headline: “Why I believe in Chris Froome”

The same is true of Team Sky.  When Walsh, who writes for the Sunday Times, part of the same media conglomerate as the cycling team, was given inside access, he wrote books and said he’d seen nothing dubious.  The story appeared under the heading “Why I believe Chris Froome”.  The story did not address how Walsh used certain methods to question Armstrong, but dismisses them when applied to Froome.

Indeed, Walsh even introduced Tucker to the concept of measuring performance to identify suspicious performances when the two spent a few days together in South Africa in 2009.  Tucker’s data, supported now by that of many others, shows that Froome is producing the same performances that Walsh deemed impossible, proof of doping when they belonged to Armstrong, Contador and Rasmussen.  The difference between Walsh’s position then and now is profound, and investigative journalists may be tempted to ask whether his Armstrong campaign was personally motivated, and whether his current one is influenced in any way by a form of journalistic parochialism, something we are all prone to.  Indeed, I wrote recently of how I hugged a fellow journalist in delight when Mo Farah won the 5,000m title at the London Games.  I think it’s safe to say that I’m also not impartial, and I’m hardly going to be the candidate to pursue the doping questions that surround Farah either – I loved that night in the stadium, the feel-good factor, the hug. That’s the story I’ll write, and I’ll dismiss links to Salazar and Aden as “innuendo”.

I have asked riders and staff, past and present, and nobody has ventured any suggestion of wrongdoing. If this is a conspiracy, it is astonishingly wide, and hasn’t fragmented, as conspiracies tend to do.

I have asked riders and staff, past and present, and nobody has ventured any suggestion of wrongdoing. If this is a conspiracy, it is remarkably similar to all those that preceded it in the sport, with the obvious exception of Armstrong, who, by virtue of his abrasive personality, burned so many people that it came back to bite him.

Before him, team supported and sponsored doping continued for years, with not a single person revealing its realities.  In cycling, this became known as omerta, and is the same phenomenon that explains why such a large proportion of corporate crime, general crime and sporting corruption goes unpunished.  Here too, recent accounts from Russia illustrate that an entire system of hundreds of athletes and officials can be involved in massive doping lasting decades (Stepanova claims her doping goes back to 2007), and not a single thing emerged until a brave young couple decided that they had a duty to reveal the truth. Conservatively, ten years of doping, two generations of athletes, that’s 600 athletes and probably 100 officials and coaches, and only now do we see under the hood.  Goes to show the adage that in the world of doping in sports, 700 can keep a secret if the one who might talk is threatened, bribed or “incentivised” enough.

When you consider how doping has happened for generations with nary a peep from within, it is hardly surprising that the relatively small, and constrained circle of a cycling team, is able to suppress it.  This is why there are no whistleblowers around any of the known dopers in the sport, even after they’ve been caught doping.  Silence is golden, in the sense that it is rewarded.  That said, there are enough whispers to make an inquisitive journalist, not drinking from the trough, wonder, but I’ve yet to ask them myself.  Some who have get to watch the Tour de France on television, marginalized by their colleagues, effectively bullied into insignificance.  When they speak, it suits me to call their words “innuendo”.

But here is an open invitation nonetheless: if anyone is prepared to testify that Brailsford, or any scientist operating under his instructions, ever offered illegal drugs, I want to hear from you. I will publish whatever you tell me, providing you can offer minimal plausibility you are not making it up. This is win-win. I win Scoop of the Year and, by being the first to testify, you win global plaudits for your honesty. And when Hollywood comes knocking, I promise to urge the director to cast Brad Pitt in your role (or, as the case may be, Angelina Jolie).

But here is an open invitation nonetheless: if anyone is prepared to testify that Brailsford, or any scientist operating under his instructions, ever offered illegal drugs, I want to hear from you. I will publish whatever you tell me, providing I will not get my ass sued to high heaven, and knowing our libel laws in this country, I think my invitation is pretty safe for both of us.  If you really want to make an impact, send your information to sportsleaks.com.

This is win-win. I might win Scoop of the Year in 15 years’ time, but  before then, I’ll likely get sued, never work in cycling again, possibly lose my job and become Kimmage version 2.0, and, by being the first to testify, you can join the likes of Jaksche and Ricardo Ricco, brutalized by those within the sport, and so don’t take me up on this if you have hopes of earning a living through the sport.  We’ll probably also label you an attention-seeker, and say that you doped because you lacked talent, so grow a thick skin.  We might mock you, like certain journalists did to Dan Stevens recently, and when you get sued, your costs are your own.  But when Hollywood comes knocking, I promise to urge the director to cast Brad Pitt in your role (or, as the case may be, Angelina Jolie).  I will be played by Rowan Atkinson, or maybe Danny de Vito if his low carb diet comes off, so take your time, he needs to be in ketosis to shed the weight. Maybe Froome’s wife can help – I don’t know a thing about ketosis or fat loss from Sky.

And yet what about the “real danger”? What about journalists and whistleblowers supposedly quaking in fear over possible retribution? I have to admit that I giggled when I read that. I am hardly a brave journalist but I have regularly gone after Roman Abramovich, accusing him of amassing wealth through “corrupt means”. This is someone with power and scary-looking bodyguards, who lives near me in London.

And yet what about the “real danger”? What about journalists and whistleblowers supposedly quaking in fear over possible retribution? I have to admit that when I read that, I thought to ask the Stepanovas for their thoughts, and then realized I don’t know where they are, because they are in hiding.  Why? Fear of real danger.  How cowardly of them.  Then I giggled when I thought of Rodchenkov, also in hiding, perhaps fearful of meeting a fate similar to his predecessors in the role of anti-doping.  They’re both dead, you see.  And while there’s no proof of nefarious reasons, you can appreciate that from the perspective of the whistleblower, which is the one that matters, not mind, he may not be entirely unfounded if he were “quaking in his boots”.

Perhaps you think that Russians are an exceptional, extreme nation, remembering the haunting images of Litvinenko lying, dying in a hospital bed with polonium poisoning for opposing the state?  Fair enough, but there remains a fear even in the “sanitized” nations – just ask Renee Anne Shirley, who fled her home, received anonymous threats in the middle of the night, and had government intervention in an attempt to limit her career in the sport.

Perhaps I could ask Steve Magness, who is constantly looking over his shoulder at national track meets in the USA, fearful of verbal and possibly physical abuse after he contributed to the allegations of doping by Alberto Salazar.  Or look up physical violence and assault at the USA track trials in 2015, inflicted by senior Nike representatives on athletes who would not play along with the ‘brand’.

The fear of financial retribution is just as real. Instead of worrying about bicycle pumps, I might have remembered Emma o’Reilly, who spent years labelled an alcoholic whore for her testimony against Armstrong.  Or the case of Greg Lemond, who wasn’t even a whistleblower, but merely suggested that the Texan’s miracle story may not be authentic, and then found himself on the receiving end of a phone call that threatened a long-standing sponsorship with Trek, numerous other threats, and worst of all, the deliberate dredging of his abused-childhood past.  I’d bet that both would have taken a bicycle pump to the head by a bespectacled cycling coach that what they got for their troubles.

You might have noted by now that many of these cases involve Armstrong, which is further confirmation that the presence of whistleblowers is exceedingly rare.  Doping did not begin with him, and nor did it end there, but he remains the only case where high profile testimonies have emerged.  His case is, however, not unique to sport, even if it is to cycling.

For instance, I might have looked into how Nike empties NDAs with their employees, and wonder whether the threat of financial punishment and professional ruin has anything to do with a lack of testimony.  I might ask whether Sky does the same?  Or perhaps I’d consider actually asking coaches about their perceptions.  Tucker reported the account of one coach – I am dismissive of this, calling it fantasy, because I would rather label Tucker a liar, a blogger, and conspiracy theorist than ask “who might that coach be, and I wonder if I can get him to talk to me?”

It makes my earlier invitation look rather hollow, of course, because here I am asking for information about doping, and at the same time I’m dismissing a potential source coming to me via a respected scientist.

I am hardly a brave journalist but I have regularly gone after Roman Abramovich, accusing him of amassing wealth through “corrupt means”.  I suspect he just doesn’t care, because it is an open secret, and he knows that he faces little accountability for it.  He’s playing a game, and I’m not even a pawn on the board.  If I were to offer something to actually threaten that illegally-acquired wealth, then I might find myself in a different situation.  Exposing doping is the sporting equivalent of that latter situation, and it makes me a king, the target of attack.  He probably giggles as he reads my articles.

I have also gone after Vladimir Putin, calling him a “dictator” and “deluded tyrant”. This is someone whose regime is alleged to have engaged in the murder of critics. I have also criticised Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, Boris Berezovsky and dozens of others. I say this not to self-aggrandise, because all columnists do the same. Our job is to speak truth to power.

I have also gone after Vladimir Putin, calling him a “dictator” and “deluded tyrant”. This is someone whose regime is alleged to have engaged in the murder of critics.  That I am alive, whereas the likes of Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya have been assassinated, is more indicative of the fact that I’m a trivial, non-existent threat, than it is that they faced no danger for going after a regime.

I have also criticised Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, Boris Berezovsky and dozens of others. I say this not to self-aggrandise, because all columnists do the same. Our job is to speak truth to power.  I have achieved little by doing so, but perhaps they’ve had a good giggle, assuming they’ve even read a word I’ve written.

In this context, does anyone really suppose that we are scared of a bespectacled cycling coach with an interest in wind tunnels? Do the twitterati really think that we have buried the evidence because we are worried that Brailsford might hit us over the head with a bike pump? The idea is so fantastical that it reveals the epic silliness of those who proclaim it.

In this context, is it not expected that people suppose that potential whistleblowers are scared of a bespectacled cycling coach with an interest in wind tunnels?  He holds the keys to the kingdom, after all, and we all thrive inside the kingdom.  It’s a great party in here!  Do the twitterati really think that journalists are worried that Brailsford might hit us over the head with a bike pump?  I have no idea what the Twitterati are saying, which is why I came up with that ludicrous example of fear.  I’ve also misunderstood the nature of the fear to mean only physical violence, and that I think it is fantastical reveals only my own silliness and ignorance of the fate that awaits whistleblowers. It suits me to focus on physical violence when the fear is far broader.

So, allow me to offer a different possibility when it comes to the victories of Pendleton and Hoy, and Froome and Wiggins, and Romero and Trott: they were not cheating. Maybe, just maybe, they worked hard and were part of an outstanding operation. Maybe we should be celebrating what they have achieved. Isn’t this what the presumption of innocence means? We should attempt to prove guilt (and I urge the journalists of the world to do just that), but unless we reach a threshold of probity, shouldn’t we acknowledge that Team Sky may have done a rather fine job?

So, allow me to entrench the possibility that I’ve argued for over the last month, and the one that supports my book sales and concept.  When it comes to the victories of Pendleton and Hoy, and Froome and Wiggins, and Romero and Trott: they were not cheating. Maybe, just maybe, they worked hard and were part of an outstanding operation.

And maybe, just maybe, there is something to the rumor, to the ‘innuendo’, that a more inquisitive, less patriotic, fellow-journalist hugging journalist might find if they were suitably incentivized.  But again, I’m making this about me, indulging my own ego.  Let’s consider the whistleblowers – maybe, just maybe, they are in possession of information that will be unpopular, and threaten their livelihood.  Maybe a balanced approach would respect this, rather than dismiss it with giggles and scorn?

So yes, maybe we should be celebrating what they have achieved, but maybe we should take the responsibility to ask some pretty obvious questions too.  This is what the presumption of innocence means, but it’s also the approach we should really be taking given how often we have been deceived before.  We cannot be so ready to accept that which is fed to us.  We should attempt to prove guilt (and I urge the journalists of the world to do just that), by asking some obvious questions, probing the inconsistencies, rather than dismissing that which challenges our previous experiences as innuendo.  Unless we bring to our occupation a threshold of skepticism, shouldn’t we acknowledge that we may fall into the same traps that we did in 1999?  It’s about asking questions, not rushing to judgment, and Tucker is arguing that we should be held to account for that, at the very least.

THE END

And I will leave it there – the rest of the article digresses into a field of meadows, unicorns and doe-eyed deers, and isn’t really relevant to the specifics around whistleblowers.

The point is this – nobody knows for sure, Matthew, but you’ve dismissed such an obvious reality faced by whistleblowers that it exposes you as a sycophant on this issue.  I’ve not read your criticism of the world’s political leaders, but I have read some of your other stuff, and I know that you know sport.  Very well.  So I was astonished to read how readily you brush aside the personal testimony of a coach, as well as knowledge of what fate awaits a whistleblower in sport.  I’d recommend reading Bonnie Ford’s outstanding work for but one example.

Nobody is asking you to grab your pitchfork and embark on a witch-hunt.  OK, maybe some.  All I am saying, based on your TDF coverage, is that you’re writing advertorials.  And a little balance, and respect, not only to the whistleblowers, but to the ‘plebs’  who don’t believe in miracles (Lance used that, perhaps you remember).  Ask the hard questions – the twitterati and “bloggers” for whom you show such disdain have identified what they are.  But then it’s hard work, as you know with your Bertrand Russell quote.

Ross

(*Correction: On July 30, this article was edited to reflect that it was only Michelle Froome, Chris Froome’s wife, and not Mrs Froome’s mother who contributed to the dietary changes that transformed his weight and cycling career in 2011)

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