Freeman tribunal to be delayed into 2021 as 10-year doping deadline looms

A portrait of Richard Freeman, a member of the Great Britain Olympic Cycling team, during the Team GB Kitting Out ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games on July 13, 2016 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Richard Freeman, a member of the Great Britain Olympic Cycling team, prior to Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Image credit: Getty Images)

Former Team Sky and British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman's medical tribunal is set to suffer another delay, dragging into 2021 and inching closer to the 10-year deadline for anti-doping charges to be lodged if allegations of testosterone abuse are substantiated. 

The hearing process, which began all the way back in February 2019 but has been set back by a string of adjournments, reconvened on October 6 and was envisaged to be wrapped up by November 26. 

However, despite the longer-than-usual window, there is no end in sight, and the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service issued a statement on Thursday saying the case will have to be adjourned to some point in 2021.

"Given the stage the hearing is at we don’t expect it to conclude in this session and further dates will be required in 2021. Dates for hearings are set with the collaboration of all parties."

The case is still in the 'facts stage', where Freeman and his defence team dispute the allegations tabled by the General Medical Council. Cross-examination of the GMC's witnesses has overrun significantly, and Freeman's first witness is yet to appear. Once it has been decided whether the allegations are upheld or not, the tribunal moves to the 'impairment stage', where the doctor's fitness to practice is assessed in light of the findings. Both sides can still call witnesses at this stage before the process concludes with a decision regarding any punishment.

Freeman's case will drag into a third year, and it is unclear at this stage when it will be able to be completed. The rescheduling of the case will have to revolve around the pre-existing commitments of the lawyers involved, most importantly Freeman's barrister, Mary O'Rourke QC. O'Rourke is a high-profile defence lawyer with experience in sport and medicine, and reportedly already has another case in 2021 that could last until the spring. 

The delay brings us closer to the 10-year anniversary of the testosterone delivery at the heart of the tribunal, which is the cut-off point for anti-doping charges to be tabled.

Freeman has admitted ordering testosterone gels that were delivered to the National Cycling Centre in June 2011, along with trying to cover it up and then lying to UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) investigators. However, he still refutes the central charge, that he placed the order "knowing or believing" the banned substance was intended to be administered to an athlete.

UKAD has already stated it is closely following the case, ready to take action if the GMC is able to substantiate the allegation, which was actually unearthed by UKAD in its 2017 investigation into Sky and British Cycling that was closed due to a lack of medical records. 

However, it may not be able to take action if it things aren't clearer by June, given the 10-year Statute of Limitations imposed by the World Anti Doping Agency code would have been surpassed. At the start of the case, it was unclear whether the updated 10-year statute would apply, as opposed to the eight-year limit in place in 2011, but the case now threatens to bypass both. 

There are confidentiality provisions at the tribunal, with numerous phases held in private, and if UKAD cannot take action it is unlikely the rider or riders alleged to have taken the testosterone would ever be identified.

On Wednesday, Freeman claimed he was unaware at the time that testosterone, banned in and out of competition, could enhance performance. He maintains he ordered the substance to treat erectile dysfunction in coach Shane Sutton, who has vehemently denied that version of events.

The tribunal continues in a virtual session on Friday, with Freeman calling psychiatrist Prof Henderson as a witness, with further witnesses, reportedly including Nicole Cooke's father Tony Cooke, to appear next week. 

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