Editor's note, 12 March 2021: This article was updated with additional comments.
MANCHESTER—Former Team Sky and British Cycling head doctor Richard Freeman did order banned testosterone so it could be used to dope a rider, a medical tribunal has found.
Dr Freeman denied "crossing the line" because he was ambitious and wanted to get good results with riders, and the decision will raise more questions about practices by his former employers.
Dr Freeman is also subject to a UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) provisional suspension from all sport.
The long-running tribunal, only expected to last 2 months when it started in February 2019, dragged on for more than 2 years due to multiple delays caused by Dr Freeman's ill health, legal arguments, and evidence overrunning.
The remarkable saga was played out against a backdrop of past doping scandals and controversies in professional cycling and the already tarnished reputations of Team Sky and British Cycling, whose all-conquering achievements led to their Manchester Velodrome HQ being called the ‘medal factory’, were given another battering amid claims the doctor had ignored anti-doping codes and taken risks with riders’ health.
The tribunal’s decision will be a further blow to Dr Freeman, who is now working at an NHS practice in the Hyndburn area of Lancashire, after he was charged last month by UKAD with two violations of anti-doping rules.
The case against Dr Freeman, heard before a Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) fitness-to-practice hearing, centred on the delivery of 30 Testogel sachets to the Manchester velodrome in May 2011.
He admitted 18 of 22 charges against him, which included placing the order, lying to colleagues and to UKAD investigators in an attempt to cover his tracks.
Dr Freeman, who destroyed one laptop before it could be examined by GMC investigators, also admitted charges of poor record management and prescribing treatment to non-athlete members of staff.
But he denied the central charge of placing the order “knowing or believing” it was intended to enhance an unknown rider’s performance.
The General Medical Council (GMC) pursued the case after Dr Freeman was at the centre of a 2016 UKAD investigation over the contents of a jiffy bag delivered to the Critérium du Dauphiné in France in 2011 which he administered to former Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins, the race winner.
The incident - dubbed ‘Jiffygate’ - led to claims Wiggins was given the banned corticosteroid triamcinoclone, which can improve a rider’s power to weight ratio.
The five-time Olympic champion had already come under scrutiny after applying for therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) allowing his use of the drug prior to three other races.
A 2018 ‘Combatting Doping in Sport' report by parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee concluded that Team Sky had abused the anti-doping system to allow Wiggins, and possibly other riders, to use triamcinoclone to prepare for the Tour de France - saying it had “crossed an ethical line” by using it to improve performance.
The report was also critical of British Cycling and Team Sky’s “poor record keeping and poor medicines policies”.
Wiggins, Team Sky, and Dr Freeman have always denied any wrongdoing and maintain the jiffy bag contained the legal decongestant fluimucil, but this was never proved.
The Testogel order, placed just a month before the Critérium du Dauphiné, was uncovered during’s a UKAD 14-month investigation.
But the package was only discovered at the time because it was opened by Dr Freeman’s colleague Phil Burt.
The physio had then alerted British Cycling’s head of medicine Dr Steve Peters, who asked for an explanation and it was then, Dr Freeman claimed, that he realised the implications of ordering a banned drug.
Dr Freeman told Dr Peters that the Testogel had been sent by mistake and would be returned.
Instead, he attempted a botched cover-up by persuading an employee from suppliers Fit4Sport to help cover his tracks.
The employee sent an email - later seen by Dr Peters - ‘confirming’ the Testogel had been sent in error, returned, and destroyed.
Dr Freeman admitted this was a lie and claimed he’d actually taken the Testogel home and poured it down his sink.
But the defence case had rested on the claim that he’d been “bullied” into placing the order by former head coach Shane Sutton to help treat his erectile dysfunction.
Mr Sutton denied this and accused Dr Freeman of lying, and his appearance before the hearing, in Manchester, provided some of its most explosive and high-drama moments.
In fiery exchanges as he gave evidence, he was accused by Dr Freeman’s QC Mary O’Rourke of being a serial liar and doper, prompting him to eventually storm out.
Mr Sutton had responded, “Am I the one on trial here? I feel like a criminal?” and he labelled Dr Freeman “spineless” for sitting behind a screen and called on him “to come out and tell the truth”.
The GMC’s case, outlined by Simon Jackson QC, was Dr Freeman was an “ambitious doctor” and under pressure to achieve good results so he was willing to take risks with riders.
Dr Freeman denied putting performance before patients, saying his role was about “risk-managing” riders’ health.
“Elite sport is dangerous,” he said. “They don't give gold medals away, they are pushing themselves to the limit.
"It is their body and I have to say 'Whoah, hold on'. They are driven people, the coaches are driven people, and I am there to protect the riders' health."
But in an astonishing admission, Dr Freeman claimed he wasn’t aware of testosterone’s use in doping when he placed the order, in spite of an “explosive” 2010 interview by disgraced Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, who’d confessed to using it.
“I am not a cycling fan I am a doctor in sports medicine,” Dr Freeman explained.
As he worked for a "clean team" testosterone was never discussed, he claimed, and it was only when Dr Peters saw the package that he realised it was a banned drug and even being in possession of it was a breach of anti-doping rules.
Crossing the Line
Mr Jackson had disputed this, given Dr Freeman’s expertise in sports medicine, and he accused the doctor of abandoning good medical practice, ignoring anti-doping codes and putting riders’ performance before their health.
Referencing Dr Freeman’s book, The Line: Where Medicine and Sport Collide, Mr Jackson claimed Dr Freeman’s prescribing had put athletes at risk and he’d “crossed the line and went way beyond it”.
He said Dr Freeman had “lied at every stage” and his attempt to cover-up the order was part of a “campaign of preservation” in which he involved others in a “web of deceit”.
“The GMC observe that there’s a truism in life,” said Mr Jackson. ‘It’s not the lies that get you, it’s the cover-up. And what a cover-up it’s been.”
He claimed Mr Sutton had been used as a “scapegoat” and Dr Freeman had wanted revenge because he believed the coach was the source of a damaging newspaper article about Jiffygate.
Two psychiatric experts had given evidence on Dr Freeman’s state of mind at the time he placed the order, with one, Dr Max Henderson, citing his “vulnerability” to bullying but claiming that alone wasn’t a factor.
In contrast, Professor Don Grubin claimed that Dr Freeman had placed the order in a “hypomanic” state due to his bi-polar disorder, describing it as a “rash and impetuous” decision.
He claimed that as the bullying happened several weeks earlier it couldn’t have been the “trigger” for ordering the Testogel.
But Ms O’Rourke claimed Dr Freeman wasn’t the "slippery, devious monster” he’d been portrayed by the GMC, who’d used “smoke and mirrors” in its case against him, and there was no proof he’d ordered the Testogel to dope a rider, or who the rider was.
“It’s all surmise and speculation,” she said.
Claims and Counterclaims
The GMC was also accused of changing its case at the 11th hour after it was claimed Dr Freeman worked with “sleepers” - that is riders who’d previously been involved in doping - at Team Sky and British Cycling.
And Mr Jackson was forced to refute Ms O’Rourke’s claim that he’d suggested there was a “conspiracy” between Dr Freeman and Mr Sutton to order the Testogel.
She also questioned why Sir Dave Brailsford, former performance director of British Cycling and manager of Team Sky, had not been called as a witness - describing him as the “spectre missing from proceedings”.
Amid all the claims and counter-claims by both sides, the case had really hinged on Dr Freeman’s credibility and whether he’d been bullied into making the order by Mr Sutton.
As Ms O’Rourke emphasised, his admission to telling previous lies “does not lead to the inevitable inference that he did it again".
But the tribunal failed to agree with her.
The case has been adjourned until March 17 and the tribunal will now rule on Dr Freeman’s fitness to practise and if he’ll face any sanctions.
'A Day for Sober Reflection'
UKAD chief executive, Nicole Sapstead said in a statemment: "Following the announcement, UKAD can confirm that Dr Richard Freeman has been charged under the UK Anti-Doping Rules (UK ADR) with two violations - Possession of Prohibited Substances and/or Prohibited Methods and Tampering or Attempted Tampering with any part of Doping Control.
“While the charges are pending, Dr Freeman is subject to a provisional suspension from all sport."
The tribunal found that Dr Freeman’s account of having ordered the Testogel for Shane Sutton "required it to believe too many implausible, unsupported assertions, as well as having to overlook further falsehoods, on the back of those Dr Freeman had already admitted." It found that Dr Freeman ordered a doping ‘drug of choice’ for that sport.
Mr Sutton issued a statement saying he was saddened by the affair that has "cast a huge shadow over the success we enjoyed, both at Team Sky and British Cycling".
He added: "I think it's important to find out who the doctor ordered it for."
British Cycling CEO, Brian Facer, said: "The verdict of the panel confirms British Cycling’s own findings that he had failed in his duties as a doctor and supports our decision to refer him to the GMC for further investigation."
He added: "This is a day for sober reflection and we know that will be felt by the thousands of people who race their bikes in this country and love our sport, from the Great Britain Cycling Team to the grassroots."
Team Sky is now called Team Ineos. In a statement it said: "Richard Freeman fell short of the ethical standards required of him as a doctor and acted dishonestly. However the Team does not believe that any athlete ever used or sought to use Testogel or any other performance enhancing substance."
Ian Leonard is a freelance journalist experienced in covering MPTS hearings.
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Cite this: Ian Leonard. Former British Cycling Doctor Ordered Testosterone to Dope Rider: MPTS Decision - Medscape - Mar 12, 2021.