Spectator sport

The Richard Freeman affair casts a cloud over British cycling

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

For those with neither the time nor inclination to plough through a PhD in the intricacies of the scandals surrounding British cycling, here’s a quick suggestion for Sir Dave ‘Marginal Gains’ Brailsford, head of Team Sky, now Ineos Grenadiers. His former team doctor, Richard Freeman, has been found guilty of ordering packages of banned testosterone for an unnamed rider a decade ago in 2011 but — in a neat piece of Harry and Meghan-style ‘We’re not saying who said what’ — has refused to reveal which athlete.

So since it seems that marginal gains might involve considerably more than just the type of plastic used on the cyclists’ helmets, Brailsford should perhaps drop a line to the organisers of the Tour de France pointing out that cycling doesn’t seem to have changed much since St Oprah Winfrey’s last jaw-dropper of an interview with disgraced rider Lance Armstrong. And that being the case, perhaps Armstrong’s seven Tour winner’s medals should be restored.

After all, Armstrong told Winfrey, it’s not certain that he gained any unfair advantage from doping. In other words, more or less everybody was at it. Which now doesn’t seem too far from the truth. Now Sir Bradley Wiggins, who had his own issues with ‘breathing difficulties’ which were helpfully sorted out by a ‘-therapeutic use exemption’, allowing him to use a powerful performance-enhancing steroid, has weighed in, saying the Freeman affair ‘stinks to high heaven’ and leaves a cloud hanging over British riders. You don’t say, Sir Brad.

On the vexatious subject of rules and regulations, surely — more than any other game — rugby union matches need referees with a deft touch if the sport is to be entertaining. Look how brilliantly Andrew Brace handled the superb, faith-restoring match between England and France at Twickenham. You hardly noticed he was there. The laws of rugby union are so arcane, particularly when it comes to tight and loose scrummaging, that a ref could run around with the whistle permanently in his mouth and blowing up every few seconds. Which some of them appear to do.

The best refs, Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes (a barrister incidentally), were the very best at allowing a game to flow for two reasons: they weren’t sticklers for the letter of the law, letting, I’m sure, minor infringements in the scrum go if they had no meaningful effect on proceedings; and second, they worked with the players rather than against them by talking to them all the time. A bit like the admirable Romain Poite, reffing the Ireland–Scotland game and reassuring Johnny Sexton ‘Don’t be scared Johnny’ when the Irish skipper feared a repetition of Pascal Gaüzère’s overly strict application of the laws in the Wales vs England game. A masterly touch from Poite, the sympathetic listener rather than the sergeant major. All refs should take note.

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