Dave Brailsford needs to take responsibility over Freeman case

Dave Brailsford
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Since last Friday and the guilty verdict (opens in new tab) handed down by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service to Dr Richard Freeman over the purchase of testosterone, I've waded through the history of this sorry affair and tried to make sense of who said what, where, and why.

I'd like to say I am all the wiser as a result but I don't feel that way. It has given me a headache, and before you think a bit of Tramadol would sort that out, I'll remind you what Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (opens in new tab) said: no thanks.

Although it's entirely possible to come up with some kind of chronological order as to when the ethics of the organisations headed up by Dave Brailsford (opens in new tab)possibly started to slip, that would underestimate how complicated and intertwined the problem really is. 

The central point, however, is that Brailsford was responsible for those organisations, and that the buck stops with him. As Freeman’s barrister, QC Mary O’Rourke, so eloquently put it, Brailsford ‘is the spectre missing at these proceedings’.

Ever since Matt Lawton broke the story of the Jiffy bag, this has been the saga that has kept on giving. From the TUEs revealed by Fancy Bears, to Salbutamol, Viagra and Fluimucil, all the doubts had been explained away with such conviction that a seasoned politician would be undoubtedly proud. However, now the guilty verdict is in, all those previous queries that were given the benefit of the doubt are cast in this light.

For a bit of clarity, let's look at the good intentions of the team’s beginnings, and the sentiments of ‘we're going to do this the right way – morally and ethically’.

Well, it turns out that didn't last long. The pretence of zero tolerance on those with doping histories lost all credibility when former Rabobank doctor Geert Leinders was invited onboard to advise.

Stepping over the symbolic blue line on the jerseys and into the big grey area wasn't that painful with the right knowledge. And here we are, 10 years later, with six British Tour de France victories in the trophy cabinet, two Giro wins and two Vuelta for good measure. 

Yes, there’s been hard work and commitment but there's been all the other stuff as well. And any questions over that sustained dominance is all the fault of one incompetent doctor, if we are to believe his portrayal before the medical tribunal. 

Again, no thanks. An accredited Olympic sports doctor who didn't know testosterone was on the banned list yet somehow managed to find himself as the main medical reference at the most successful track cycling nation of recent times and the biggest-budget professional team is implausible.

History tells us that dominance by one particular team eventually unravels as the politics and personal relationships become troublesome. You only have to look at the accusations of being the fall guy or the victim of internal frictions to see that's partly what has gone on here. Resentments and resignations, forced or not, have brought out the sordid details and now Brailsford finds himself in a very difficult place.

When UK Anti-doping begin to dig properly into the Freeman affair then the man who has been credited with the Olympic successes and the Team Sky/Ineos era is going to be front and centre into how any of this happened under his watch.

Why will he take all the heat? Well, because whether it's British Cycling and the Olympics, or the WorldTour pro team, he has been the person ultimately responsible for those results. Performance director or team principal, it doesn't matter what the title is or was: he has been in charge of the systems that won the medals and the Grand Tours. 

To understand why the responsibility comes back to the same person, you have to know how those management structures function and that they are remarkably similar at both British Cycling and Team Sky/Ineos.

At the bottom of the performance pyramid are riders and staff. The next level is head mechanic, number one doctor (used to be head soigneur), and lead directeur sportif. They report to the general manager or lieutenant and they themselves report to the head honcho – that’s the team principal or whatever they want to call themselves, as they usually own or part-own the team. 

In very simplistic terms, there are four separate levels of responsibility. Everything to do with performance comes to the attention of the person at the top. In the event of a problem with equipment or a rider, it's the top person who decides, with the collaboration of the relevant department of course. Bikes equal number one mechanic, riders mean number one doctor.

Now comes the tricky bit of what to do when someone suggests an improvement could be made by a method which is medicine or substance-related. Generally, that'll be proposed as suitable for one of the top riders because they're the ones missing the final percentages to win the biggest races. It'll be phrased as removing a weakness, reinforcing a strength or it's what everyone else is doing.

When this scenario happens, it's not knowledge that'll be shared with everyone in the team. Only those present in the meeting will know what's happening: generally that will be the rider concerned, the doctor, the lead directeur sportif and, crucially, the team principal. 

The less people who know, the better, because at best it's ethically dubious and at worst it’s illegal. Add to that it's made quite clear that if anything goes wrong then whoever gets caught or blamed then they are on their own. They are expected to say nothing to incriminate the others whilst listening to their co-conspirators announce they knew nothing about it. 

Lance Armstrong is less annoyed with getting busted than he is with Floyd Landis for breaking the omerta.

The panic and the attempted cover-up that ensued on discovery of the testosterone package says the individuals who found the delivery didn't know and they didn't need to know because, quite frankly, it was above their pay grade. 

When the decision was made to order the drugs, it's barely conceivable that this was the decision of one rogue person. That is not how the system works. Read what former riders and soigneurs have said, like those at Festina or US Postal; the decision to step over the line is made with the knowledge of those at the top of the performance tree.

It’s limited to a select few to ensure secrecy is maintained, which it will be until something breaks the trust or bond between the people involved. 

It's human nature that messes things up. Revenge, neglect,

lack of respect, schadenfreude - whatever the reason, it's what happens when people are involved.

It doesn't matter which hat Dave Brailsford was wearing because, for the period concerned, he sat at the top of the performance structure when the offence took place. British Cycling or Team Sky, the verdict is the same. It was his responsibility to know what was happening on all matters relating to performance.

For someone famously involved in every aspect of his teams - who lived 24/7, 365 days a year flat-out chasing every detail and brought the concept of ‘marginal gains’ to British cycling - to be somehow unaware of what Freeman was doing seems to go beyond misfortune and into carelessness.

Maybe things have not been as meticulous as they were presented, maybe he has been duped by a rogue person, and maybe we'll find out if, as requested by Bradley Wiggins, there's a proper UKAD investigation. 

For now, Brailsford remains silent, and Team Ineos Grenadiers has strongly pushed back on calls that he should resign, echoing former coach Shane Sutton’s statement that neither he nor Brailsford knew anything about the testosterone order.

However, it’s one thing if this is another pro cycling saga but another if it also implicates the Olympic legacy of British Cycling because that was backed by UK Sport. The State. That means taxpayers' money and misuse of public funds.

Going by the refusal of Fit4sport to provide historical records to British Cycling of medications supplied to Manchester velodrome, it doesn’t look like a rogue operator, but then this story is only just beginning.

How much more intrigue and backstabbing we’re going to be served up is anyone's guess. So far, the erectile dysfunction, fall guy accusations and possible drugs mule to Europe tales have seemed like comedy gold but, in another 10 years' time, we might not be smirking so much.

Eventually, the good old days don't appear that good after all.

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Philippa York is a long-standing Cyclingnews contributor who provides expert racing analysis. As a professional rider, she finished on the podium at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España, as well as winning the mountains classification at the 1984 Tour de France.