Froome & Friends

If you’re a cycling fan, Wednesday 13 December 2017 was a big day. News of Chris Froome’s Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) for the asthma medication Salbutamol tore through the Cycling media. Across Europe, it made mainstream headlines. Disappointed is an understatement. I was gutted.If you’ve read the introduction and despaired, worry not. This is not an impassioned defence of Chris Froome and Team Sky. They have lawyers to do that for them.

This is, in fact, a question that should be on the mind of anyone that calls themselves a sports fan, focused through cycling’s prism of narcotic notoriety:

How on earth do we actually feel about dopers?

Let’s get the big one out of the way first. Innocent until proven guilty. In sport as in court. You cannot be found guilty until it has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt.

What does this mean for Froome? Salbutamol is not a banned substance. It doesn’t require the infamous Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) woven into the Wiggins inquiry. Froome’s AAF is not a guilty verdict. He has the right to explain why twice the permitted concentration was in his system after Stage 18 of the 2017 Vuelta a España.

If proven a physiological anomaly, Froome should be absolved and his Maillot Rojo should stand. If not, a lengthy ban and the loss of his Vuelta title will tarnish what would doubtless have been an imposing legacy.

So where does this leave him? There may be better ways to illustrate an answer to my question than the Froome example.

Cycling will forevermore be haunted by the spectre of doping. It is therefore right to be cynical. However, we should not yet doom Froome to villainy. His guilt has not been proven, though public opinion may have condemned him already.

The contrast with how Sir Mo Farah CBE is perceived is stark. One of the country’s most celebrated athletes, he is also inextricably linked with Alberto Salazar. In May 2017, an employee at Nike’s world-(in)famous Oregon Project made accusations that Dr Jeffrey Brown (a doctor working with Salazar at the time) deliberately falsified medical records before sharing them with the United States Anti-Doping Agency USADA.

The accusations, specifically with regards to performance-boosting quantities of the amino acid L-carnitine, were damning. They’re not too dissimilar to those levelled at Froome. Yet Sir Mo is revered still. He was voted Sports Personality of the Year 2017.

There must be more to it than cycling’s chequered past.

Athletics is far from clean. Icarus, Bryan Fogel and Grigory Rodchenkov’s exposé of the Russian state-sponsored doping programme was nominated for an Academy Award. And Sochi 2014 is fresher in the memory than Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France in 2010.

Froome should be the quintessential British sporting icon. Not for him the celebrated British Cycling Academy pathway. Instead, an incomparable work ethic has taken him from humble beginnings in Kenya to four Tour de France titles. The archetypal underdog, a quietly-spoken and modest demeanour is at odds with a supreme athleticism and competitive ruthlessness.

Many point to his birthplace in the heart of Africa. They point to his residence outside the UK. They say he focuses only on marquee events. They complain he has the strongest team, the latest equipment, the best coaching. All this before the doping allegations.

Is that Froome or Farah? For the above could be said of both.

Yet Farah basks in the reflected glow of public affection afforded by his four Olympic gold medals. Perhaps better than any other he has used his Olympic success to nurture a persona adored by sports fans.

That may be the point. Is Froome’s greatest fault that, despite his mastery of his sport, the Tour de France bears no comparison with the Olympics? Olympic success is like no other, and Farah will forever be associated with the Games.

Have his four medals made Mo emblematic of the Olympic ideals? If so, have then Froome’s four Tour titles made him the embodiment of cycling’s pharmaceutical reputation? Is this why he is vilified as Farah is knighted?

What of those pantomime villains, the proven cheats? This should be easy. Yet, again, it isn’t. Yet, again, cycling and athletics are the two sports that best illustrate the discrepancy.

The same Vuelta at which Froome recorded his AAF was Alberto Contador’s last. Arguably his generation’s greatest Grand Tour rider, El Pistolero retired in style. He won the penultimate stage atop the ferociously steep Alto de l’Angliru. The next day he pedalled into Madrid ahead of the peloton, enjoying a hero’s welcome alone.

A fairy-tale ending for a man who was banned from the sport for two years after testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol (a powerful corticosteroid) at the 2010 Tour. Contador fought the ban, claiming he’d unknowingly eaten a contaminated steak. Whilst it was wild boar for Tyson Fury, for Contador it was beef.

His case ended up in Lausanne, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In 2012 he was given a back-dated two-year ban from the sport and was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles.

In other words, he was proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Remember that?

The double-standard is different this time. In this case, it’s Justin Gatlin that provides the insidious foil to Contador the flawed hero. In fact, Gatlin is possibly the most unpopular man in sport.

He was famously booed during the medal ceremony that saw him crowned 100m World Champion ahead of a retiring Usain Bolt. It’s impossible to argue that this was during small-scale competition either. There is no such thing as small-scale with Bolt in the lane next to you.That was before fresh scandal engulfed Gatlin. He is surely now beyond redemption. An investigation by The Telegraph revealed members of his team, including his coach, offered to supply undercover reporters with performance-enhancing drugs.

So, in answer to my question, how we feel about dopers is simultaneously logical and illogical. Sport is built upon this nebulous passion.

We fickle fans choose our heroes carefully. We select those athletes we think reflect our values and abilities. That’s why it’s possible for some to simultaneously condemn Froome and revere Farah, applaud Contador and boo Gatlin. After all, who would boo themselves?

Nike’s most successful failure yet

You don’t have to work in the sports industry to know that Nike and adidas have a long, historic, and occasionally bitter rivalry. This was put to the side at 08:20 on Saturday morning in a single tweet: “Congratulations @EliudKipchoge on such a courageous run”.Courageous is correct. Kipchoge had just run a marathon in 02:00:25 as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project – the fastest time yet. It is staggering. That’s an average speed of just over 13mph. That’s 04:36 per mile. It’s 02:32 faster than the official World Record (more on which later).

It’s also – crucially – 25 seconds short of what he had aimed for. It was fast, but also a failure.

The Breaking2 project was Nike’s attempt to break through the 2-hour marathon time barrier. Kipchoge – the Olympic Champion – was the spearhead, supported by fellow runners Zersenay Tadese and Lelisa Desisa.

The project has drawn as many critics as it has plaudits. The former dismiss it as an outlandishly expensive marketing exercise for the new Zoom Vaporfly Elite. The latter laud the exploration of the limits of athletic ability.

The scale of Nike’s investment matched that of the challenge. No gain – no matter how marginal – had been overlooked:

• The location – Italy’s famous Monza racecourse – had been chosen for its low, flat, sweeping profile and few bends
• The attempt started at 05:45 when temperature was at an ideal 10˚C
• Kipchoge, Tadese and Desisa ran behind a group of elite pace runners in arrowhead formation ahead of them to reduce wind resistance
• The group ran behind Tesla pace cars with giant clock timer displays, reducing resistance even further
• Kipchoge was drinking a new carbohydrate-rich drink, delivered to him by helpers on mopeds
• All three were wearing the new Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoe, quoted as giving as much as a 4% increase in running economy

Nike are also rumoured to have paid each runner up to £770,000 to skip both the London and Berlin Marathons – official IAAF events – a fraction of what I imagine the production and media budgets must have been.

The return? 5.2 million people tuned in to watch the live stream on Facebook (I was one), with 6 million watching a short film as Kipchoge finished (I was one of those too). My various social media feeds featured more running content than they did around the London Marathon. Time will tell how many shoes sell.

However, the amount of editorial coverage I’ve seen rivals that which followed Red Bull and Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos project. It has become the latest instalment of the truly iconic, global sports marketing event and it’s interesting that once again it was a brand event.I had a conversation with a friend and fellow long-distance runner in the office this morning and we questioned why this is happening. Why do Nike have to create a bespoke event to make this happen? Why not attempt it on the world’s greatest sporting stage – the Olympics?

The reason, we agreed, is fairly simple. Human beings are naturally curious and the Breaking2 project had one simple goal: to run a marathon as fast as possible. It was a moonshot.

Crucially, Nike and Kipchoge didn’t set out to break Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 World Record – set in Berlin. The techniques I have listed above made the attempt ineligible. Instead, they wanted to run a marathon as fast as possible, not as fast as the constraints of official rules & regulations would allow.

The success of Breaking2 has shown that this will not be the last event of its kind – despite its failure. Nike themselves are discussing a similar event working with female athletes and even average athletes. adidas – rekindling the rivalry – are working on their own attempt at the 2-hour barrier. This may be start of the next sports marketing arms race.

I think Breaking2 has proven that a brand marketing campaign can successfully co-exist and support genuine athletic endeavour with genuine authenticity. The challenge for Nike is to progress; what is the next step? Where do they go from here?

The broader challenge is ensuring that brands undertaking the same challenge maintain their focus on simple goals that capture the imagination in a way that everyone understands, no matter the scale.