Team Sky and British Cycling’s successes over the past decade have been left shrouded in suspicion after their former chief doctor Richard Freeman was found guilty of ordering banned testosterone “knowing or believing” it was for an unnamed rider to improve their performance.
In a devastating verdict that will send shockwaves through British sport, Freeman was also found guilty of concealing his conduct by orchestrating an elaborate cover-up after purchasing “a doping ‘drug of choice’ for his sport”.
Immediately after the verdict, there were calls to find and identify the rider involved – while Clive Efford, a member of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, called for Sir Dave Brailsford to be suspended by Ineos Grenadiers pending a full investigation. “Until this is cleared up, all those involved shouldn’t be anywhere near the sport,” he added.
Freeman, who worked for Team Sky and British Cycling between 2009 and 2017, had already admitted to 18 charges against him including purchasing banned testosterone, lying to the UK Anti-Doping Agency and keeping haphazard records. But on Friday he also was found guilty of three more charges relating to the delivery of 30 sachets of Testogel – banned in and out of competition – to British Cycling and Team Sky headquarters in Manchester in May 2011.
Crucially the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) said it found Freeman’s claims that he had bought the banned drug for former British Cycling and Team Sky coach Shane Sutton to treat his erectile dysfunction were “implausible”.
“As a highly experienced doctor, the reason Dr Freeman claims to have ordered Testogel [to treat Mr Sutton] was unconvincing in itself,” it added. “It stretched credulity that a high-profile, experienced sports doctor would order a potential banned substance under the World Anti-Doping Agency code; yet, despite the significance of this, fail to make a record of the intended patient, the circumstances, and the proposed off-label use.
“The tribunal found that Dr Freeman’s account of having ordered the Testogel for Mr 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.
“The position therefore is this. In May 2011, Dr Freeman, the team doctor for a team of elite cyclists … ordered a doping ‘drug of choice’ for that sport. Upon its arrival he was dishonest about why it had been sent, removed it from the Velodrome, and it was never seen again.” Freeman had claimed last year that he had taken the testosterone home with him and flushed it down the sink but the tribunal noted that they only had his word.
“Bearing in mind the breadth of Dr Freeman’s dishonesty and the number of people he had pulled into it, the tribunal found his conduct incapable of innocent explanation,” the MPTS report concluded. “It was clear that, on the balance of probabilities, the inference could properly be drawn that when Dr Freeman placed the order and obtained the Testogel, he knew or believed it was to be administered to an athlete to improve their athletic performance.” The identity of the rider for whom the testosterone was allegedly ordered has never been established, nor did the General Medical Council attempt to prove it.
Speaking after the verdict, Sutton admitted the decision had cast a cloud over both Team Sky and British Cycling. “I’m saddened by the whole affair,” he said. “I feel for the doctor; that he ever got into this situation, and I remain disappointed that I was used as a scapegoat. It has caused great pain to both me and my family. But it also saddens me that this episode has cast a huge shadow over the success we enjoyed, both at Team Sky and British Cycling.
“I’d like to stress that neither I nor Sir Dave Brailsford knew about the testosterone order,” he added. “But I think it’s important to find out who the doctor ordered it for. Hopefully that will emerge from the investigation by UK Anti-Doping.”
The tribunal accepted that Sutton had been a “scratchy and irascible character” who, “when under pressure would indeed engage in bullying behaviour”. However, it said there was no evidence that Sutton had been bullying Freeman in 2011 and they found him a credible witness.
The protracted case, which was expected to last a month when it began in February 2019, has dragged on for more than two years. However, Friday’s verdict does not yet mark its end. It will sit again for three days next week to assess whether Freeman’s licence to practice is impaired – and then again in April to deliberate on whether he should lose his doctor’s licence or face any other punishments for his behaviour.
Freeman will also face two UK Anti-Doping charges related to ordering banned testosterone, including possession of a prohibited substance and tampering.
In a statement, Ineos Grenadiers – formally Team Sky – admitted that it was “very clear from the tribunal’s report that Freeman had fallen short of the ethical standards required of him as a doctor and acted dishonestly”. But it added: “However the Team does not believe that any athlete ever used or sought to use Testogel or any other performance-enhancing substance. No evidence has been provided that this ever happened or that there has been any wrongdoing by any athlete at any point.”
Meanwhile Brian Cookson, the president of British Cycling between 1996 and 2013, called upon Freeman to give a full and frank account to UK Anti-Doping. “In many different ways, my team and I worked long and hard to ensure that success was well-founded on principles of integrity, fair play and competing within the rules, including and especially with respect to anti-doping,” he added.
However Damian Collins MP, the former chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, said it posed “major questions for British sport” as well as British Cycling and Team Sky.
“How could the chief doctor for Team Sky and British Cycling order a banned substance ‘knowing or believing’ it was to help a rider cheat the anti-doping rules?” he asked. “Was this a one off, who was the recipient, why was there supposedly no supervision of what he was ordering? This case is not just about the failure of one man to adhere to the rules and the standards expected of him, but a failure at that time of the management of the teams he worked for, including the national governing body of the sport.” Meanwhile Efford said the ruling against Freeman exposed Team Sky’s “zero tolerance” approach to doping as having been “a tissue of lies”.
“Dave Brailsford gave reassurances about how clean his teams were and unless he was in full control of what was going on, he couldn’t make those assurances,” he added.
Wada said it had noted “with concern” the decision and said it would work to support the authorities in the case “to ensure that all possible lines of enquiry are exhausted.”
It added: “A number of questions still remain unanswered, such as the identity of the rider or riders who were the intended recipients of the prohibited substance ordered by Dr Freeman, and who else, if anyone, had knowledge of his actions.”