Sky finds its limit in cycling sponsorship as doping hearings approach

Sky has pulled financial backing from its cycling powerhouse / Team Sky

And so, the wheels have finally fallen off. The greatest cycling team of all time is on the brink of collapse as its sponsor Sky pulls its support.

The news that Sky will soon drop its cycling powerhouse ends more than a decade of unparalleled success during which the team won six Tour de France yellow jerseys. A looming scandal looks to have threatened this successful partnership.

However, I’d argue that Lord Acton had it nailed when he said "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men..." and it is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th century. Dave Brailsford is one of these men and his arrogance and blind-obsession with winning is what has brought what should be one of Britain’s most impressive exports to the brink of collapse.

But why now? Well, so far, there has not been concrete proof that the pay-off has been worth it for Sky: despite the tarnished reputations and swirling controversy they still managed to win the Tour this year with a lovable Welshman (who is one of the few cyclists without doping accusations being levelled at him…for now)

However, soon enough the man at the centre of the jiffy bag scandal - ex-Team Sky chief medic Dr Richard Freeman – will have a hearing in front of the General Medical Council. At this, he will be asked to explain the mystery delivery of testosterone to the velodrome in 2011. Today’s news, I’d say, gives a pretty clear indication of quite how Team Sky expect that hearing to go…

It may be the nail in the coffin, sorry tyre, for Team Sky and its reputation as a “force for good”. Brailsford and co have trodden a very fine line in the greyest of areas for a long time now. Yes, it brought results, but the buck has to stop somewhere, and it stops with him. The use of TUEs and the rules regarding them is an incredibly complex topic but is also irrelevant – an action or a decision does not need to break the rules to be immoral and against the spirit of the sport.

In the same way that “win at all costs” was the downfall of the Australian cricketers, Brailsford became so obsessed with winning that he was prepared to make decisions that were not in the best interests of the team’s long-term prospects. Short-termism, arrogance and naivety were the pervading motivations and emotions behind the way he ran his camp and as DCMS said, such practices were “inconsistent with their original aim of ‘winning clean’ and maintaining the highest ethical standards within their sport” – what Brailsford forgot was that while he was prepared to sacrifice his ethical standards, a sponsor (with a bottom line to maintain) is not going to be so flimsy with its moral code.

As soon as ethical standards are compromised, sponsors will have concerns. With doctor Richard Freeman’s hearing approaching it made complete business sense for Sky to turn its efforts to its campaign of the moment, Sky Ocean Rescue, and maintain its “force for good” image.

Sky Ocean Rescue is raising awareness about ocean health and encouraging businesses and the public to eliminate single-use plastic. Now there is something we can all rally around and it serves as the perfect ‘next step’ for Sky’s sponsorship programme – after all, if David Attenborough agrees with it, who could disagree with it?

James Porter is an account executive at W Comms.

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