Team Sky has the full backing of the executives at the media behemoth despite enduring a year plagued by doping allegations, according to a key director at Britain’s most successful cycling team.
Sky has dominated professional cycling in recent years, winning four of the last five editions of the Tour de France, which starts on Saturday. But since Chris Froome’s most recent victory in Paris last July, persistent questions about the legality and morality of their approach have threatened to overshadow successes on the road.
Fran Millar, Team Sky’s director of business operations and head of winning behaviours, admits there has been a “tragic” loss of trust among the general public in the wake of the allegations.
“None of this has been ideal. None of it been something that you would want to happen,” she told City A.M. “But in terms of the relationship with the shareholders, I don’t think it has damaged it.”
Problems started in September when hackers Fancy Bears revealed confidential medical details relating to Sir Bradley Wiggins. The four-time Olympic gold medallist got the ball rolling for Sky in 2012 when he became the first ever Briton to win the Tour de France’s famous yellow jersey.
Contained within the hackers’ leak were Wiggins’ therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs), in which he had been given medical sign-off to use otherwise banned drugs.
Subsequently, details emerged of a mysterious package delivered to Wiggins after a race in the French Alps in 2011. Representatives from Team Sky and British Cycling were hauled in front of MPs to explain themselves.
Team boss Sir Dave Brailsford eventually attested to a parliamentary select committee that the package contained the non-prohibited decongestant Fluimucil. An ongoing investigation by UK Anti-Doping is yet to corroborate his claims.
“We haven’t been able to provide the right answers and manage the process well enough. So we’ve ended up damaging our fans, which isn’t a nice place to be,” said Millar who has been alongside Brailsford at the team from its genesis in 2007.
However, Millar said:
We have been open and transparent with them [the Sky board] throughout our history. So there have been no surprises in any of this.
Sky has been intimately involved in this team from the very beginning.
Sky group chief executive Jeremy Darroch was a driving force behind the broadcaster’s investment in cycling.
With Sky being instrumental in the exponential growth in football’s English Premier League, Darroch wanted to dispel a stigma of “Moneybags Sky”.
He saw an opportunity by investing at a grassroots level with British Cycling, while making Sky’s “Believe in Better” motto more tangible to the public through bankrolling a professional cycling outfit.
The Sky chief exec remains on the board of the team, which, unlike most other professional cycling teams, is a subsidiary of the corporate entity.
Millar, the sister of renowned British former pro David Millar, said: “Jeremy had this very clear objective, that was a business-led objective as to why he wanted to get into cycling. Dave had this very clear objective around the Tour de France, and the two things aligned.”
Sky dropped a parallel sponsorship deal with British Cycling at the start of the year, being replaced by HSBC. But Millar insists such a departure will not be replicated at the professional level.
There would have to be a significant business case for them to not want to continue to do it. It will be around for the foreseeable future, that’s for sure.
Sky’s split from British Cycling mirrored a move by Brailsford in April 2014. He had, until that point, shouldered the burden of running both the Olympic and professional squads.
Shane Sutton, Brailsford’s replacement, was at the centre of allegations of sexism and bullying at British Cycling. An independent report released in June was critical of the of corporate governance at British Cycling and of Sutton.
But although a leaked draft of the report in March referenced a “culture of fear” stretching back years, there was no direct criticism of Brailsford in the final version.
British Cycling and Team Sky are both headquartered in offices at the Manchester velodrome. Millar says she has experienced first hand the way in which the Olympic programme has been run.
She said the claims against British Cycling were “grossly unfair” and the smear on the national body “is a real travesty”.
I have worked for Dave Brailsford for over a decade. Yes, he is uncompromising and he is a difficult character. He expects the very highest standards. But he doesn’t bully people. I’ve worked alongside him for nearly 10 years and I wouldn’t be doing that if he was a sexist.
“That programme is the most successful programme in the history of British sport for three Olympic cycles on the trot. That doesn’t come from a culture of fear and bullying – it just doesn’t. In some ways that’s been a bit more unfair than the treatment of us.”
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