The sense of controversy surrounding Team Sky and British Cycling has calmed somewhat in the past 10 months, following the conclusion of separate investigations by the UK Anti-Doping Agency (UKAD) and the UK Parliament’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS). Yet things are set to flare up again this week, as Dr. Richard Freeman faces a medical tribunal that could see him stripped of his right to practise.
On the seventh floor of the St James’s Buildings in central Manchester on Wednesday, Freeman, who worked for both organisations between 2009 and 2015, will take a seat in front of a panel of independent arbitrators from the Medical Practitioners’ Tribunal Service (MPTS) to answer to a misconduct case brought by the General Medical Council (GMC).
Over the course of the next month, he will be grilled over the testosterone gels that were delivered to British Cycling and Team Sky HQ in 2011, along with a number of other issues, including his approach to prescription medication, his private treatment of colleagues, and his record keeping.
The tribunal has the potential to inflict further harm on the reputations of both British Cycling and Team Sky, after a string of controversies that includes Bradley Wiggins’ use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) and the notorious ‘jiffy bag’ saga.
The main area of inquiry at the tribunal concerns the package containing 30 sachets of Testogel delivered to the Manchester Velodrome – home to British Cycling and Team Sky – on May 16, 2011. “It is alleged that his motive for placing the order was to obtain Testogel to administer to an athlete to improve their athletic performance,” reads the MPTS’ case summary, setting out the most explosive charge against Freeman.
Testosterone is banned both in and out of competition under the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules. If it were found that the gel – which is applied to the skin - was administered to one or more athlete, the athlete(s) in question would face a lengthy doping ban, and it would deal a huge blow to the integrity of multi Olympic medal-winning British Cycling and six-time Tour de France winners Team Sky.
UKAD, whose investigation was frustrated by a lack of medical information and was closed in November 2017, told Cyclingnews it will be following the tribunal closely. It was UKAD who passed on information to the GMC and, should the medical body be able to exercise greater might in substantiating the allegations, it is poised to spring into action again.
“We will be closely following the tribunal, and if any new information were to come to light we will certainly look into that,” said a UKAD spokesperson.
The tribunal will look into Freeman’s previous explanations for the Testogel delivery. In March 2017, Dr Steve Peters, former head of medicine at both British Cycling and Team Sky, told the Sunday Times that he was immediately made aware of the delivery and that Freeman told him he had not placed the order and so it must have been sent in error. Peters requested Freeman return the package and obtain written confirmation of receipt from the supplier, and said this had been done, though the BBC revealed last month that email confirmation from the supplier only arrived in October, five months after the delivery.
According to the MPTS, it is alleged Freeman lied when he denied making the order, and lied separately when he told UKAD, in February 2017, that Testogel had in fact been ordered, for a non-athlete member of staff. It is also alleged that Freeman contacted Fit4Sport in October 2011, five months after the delivery, and obtained email confirmation that the Testogel had been returned and destroyed, despite knowing this had not happened.
“It is further alleged Dr Freeman’s motive for his actions, in respect of the untrue statements and communications with Fit4Sport Limited, were to conceal his motive for placing the order,” states the MPTS case summary.
The tribunal will also examine allegations that Freeman “inappropriately” provided treatment to non-athlete members of staff, that his management of prescription-only medication was “inappropriate”, and that he “failed to inform three patients’ GPs of medication prescribed and reasons for prescribing”. Dave Brailsford, the Team Sky boss and former British Cycling performance director, has admitted that Freeman injected him with triamcinolone, the corticosteroid used controversially by Wiggins under TUEs.
The tribunal will also assess Freeman’s record keeping, which came under intense scrutiny during the UKAD investigation and Parliament inquiry. A laptop containing, among other things, records of the mystery ‘jiffy bag’ delivered from British Cycling HQ to the Team Sky bus at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné, was stolen in August 2014 and the contents were not backed up.
The tribunal process
The GMC is not examining Freeman, as such, but has built a case that is being put in front of the MPTS, an independent arbitration body. In the first phase of the tribunal, a representative from the GMC will set out its case, detailing the allegations and presenting its evidence, which includes calling upon witnesses. Freeman can cross-examine the GMC witnesses but will then be able to set out his own case in the next phase, presenting his own evidence and calling his own witnesses.
The process will then move to the steps of ‘impairment’ and ‘sanction’ to determine firstly whether Freeman’s ‘fitness to practise’ is impaired by what has been established, and secondly what disciplinary action should be taken if so. The most severe penalty would see Freeman struck off the medical register, meaning he would never be able to practise as a doctor in any form again. In the past 12 months, 75 doctors have been erased from the GMC’s register. Otherwise, any impairment could result in a temporary suspension, or in restrictions being imposed on how Freeman can practise.
While medical tribunals last, on average, for a week, Freeman’s has been scheduled for a full month. This is partly due to the number of different allegations on the table, but also suggests a long witness list and much evidence to plough through. The MPTS does not reveal witness identities ahead of the trial, though Peters is almost certain to be called. Cyclingnews understands that Brailsford will not appear. He was in the USA for the Superbowl at the weekend and is set to attend the Tour Colombia 2.1 race with Sky later this month.
Cyclingnews understands Freeman will attend, alongside a lawyer. He declined to appear in front of the DCMS committee last year, citing ill health, provided his evidence to UKAD in writing, and pulled out of giving evidence at the Jess Varnish employment tribunal. However, he looks set to fully cooperate with the medical tribunal as he fights to continue to be able to work in the profession.
While UKAD ran into a dead-end in its investigation, the GMC possesses greater powers when it comes to examining specific details of medical conduct. UKAD’s investigation into the jiffy bag, and the testosterone lead it obtained in the process, was frustrated not only by a lack of records, but also by doctor-patient confidentiality rules. The GMC has greater authority in demanding that information, meaning it is within their power to identify anyone – whether it was an athlete or not – who might have been administered with the testosterone gel.
If such an anti-doping rule violation is indeed established, it would be devastating for the credibility of both Team Sky and British Cycling. If it concerned a Sky rider, it would deal the biggest blow yet to the already-tarnished reputation of Brailsford’s team, who came into the sport in 2010 preaching an ethos of competing clean and later introduced a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to doping and anyone associated with it. It’s no understatement to say it could spell the end for the team, given Sky’s withdrawal as a sponsor and the risk that further controversy might deter prospective successors.
Aside from the fall-out for Sky and British Cycling – whose abundance of medals at the past three Olympics would be viewed with suspicion – such an outcome would call into question UKAD’s functionality, and whether greater investigatory powers are needed for it to perform adequately as an anti-doping authority.
Freeman started working at British Cycling and Team Sky in 2009, having previously worked in football at Bolton Wanderers, and before that as a general practitioner.
In 2015, he left Sky to work solely at British Cycling. After news of the jiffy bag and TUEs broke in later 2016, Freeman spent extended periods of time away from work, revealing he was suffering with severe depression and had had suicidal thoughts. For this reason, he did not appear when called to give evidence in front of the DCMS committee, and he also provided his evidence to UKAD in writing. Freeman was suspended by British Cycling in 2017 and later resigned in October of that year.
Along with the testosterone allegations, Freeman has come under fire for his role in the jiffy bag episode. He claims the package couriered from the Manchester Velodrome to him in France during the 2011 Dauphiné was the legal and widely available decongestant fluimucil – not triamcinolone, as alleged – though this remains unsubstantiated due to a lack of medical records.
Freeman was heavily criticised for poor record-keeping and medicine management by UKAD and the DCMS committee. He apparently failed to use Sky’s Dropbox system to back-up medical data, and in 2014 his laptop was stolen during a burglary in Greece.
It has also been established that Freeman had more than 50 vials of triamcinolone – banned in-competition – at the Velodrome in 2011. He since told the BBC the “vast majority” were for non-athlete members of staff, the rest used by riders out-of-competition, except by Wiggins under TUEs. The GMC’s allegations of mismanagement of prescription medication and inappropriate treatment of colleagues follow revelations that Brailsford and others were injected with the corticosteroid by him personally. Freeman was not the GP of anyone at British Cycling but ran a free clinic for staff members and their relatives.
Another area of controversy is his approach to TUEs, with the DCMS report painting a scathing picture of banned drugs being used with medical permission in order to enhance performance rather than treat ailments. Freeman applied for the three TUEs that allowed Wiggins to receive injections of triamcinolone ahead of the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France and 2013 Giro d’Italia, and had to be prevented from applying for another dose ahead of the 2013 Tour of Britain by a concerned colleague.
Freeman wrote a book, published last year, titled ‘The Line’, in which he says his role was about “Finding it. Making others aware of it. Going up to it. But never crossing it.”