‘Terrible day’ for British cycling as Dr Richard Freeman is found guilty

Eleanor Crooks, PA
·8-min read

The reputations of British Cycling and Team Sky have been dealt another major blow with the finding that former chief doctor Richard Freeman ordered testosterone knowing or believing it was to dope a rider.

That was the conclusion reached by a Medical Practitioners Tribunal on Friday after a hearing which has lasted more than two years and seen plenty of dirty laundry washed in public and was described as a “terrible day for the reputation of British cycling”.

Dr Freeman admitted 18 of 22 charges against him relating to the ordering of a package of Testogel to British Cycling headquarters in 2011, as well as poor record-keeping and inappropriate treatment of non-riders, but denied the central charge regarding its purpose.

In making its decision, the tribunal said Dr Freeman’s evidence was “implausible” and “dishonest” and that his conduct was “incapable of innocent explanation”.

Dr Freeman claimed he had been bullied into ordering the testosterone to treat former performance director Shane Sutton’s erectile dysfunction, which the Australian strenuously denied on an explosive day of testimony in 2019.

Sutton stormed out before completing his evidence, calling Dr Freeman a liar and a “spineless individual”, but the tribunal found him to be a credible and consistent witness.

The decision read: “To be clear, Mr Sutton’s behaviour during the hearing was intemperate. Nevertheless, the Tribunal had no basis to determine his evidence untruthful.

Richard Freeman worked for British Cycling and Team Sky
Richard Freeman worked for British Cycling and Team Sky (Tim Goode/PA)

“The Tribunal determined that Dr Freeman’s evidence was implausible. It did not believe he ordered the Testogel for Mr Sutton.”

Responding to the outcome, Sutton called for further investigation, saying in a statement: “I’m saddened by the whole affair. 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 (team principal) Sir Dave Brailsford knew about the testosterone order.

“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.”

  • Dr Freeman admitted 18 of 22 charges

  • Denied he had ordered Testogel for the purposes of doping

  • Claimed order was to treat Shane Sutton’s erectile dysfunction

  • Former performance director Sutton strenuously denied claim

  • Tribunal found Testogel order was made knowing or believing it was to be given to a rider for the purposes of doping.

  • Tribunal will sit next week to determine sanctions.

Dr Freeman’s lies began when the package was opened by his colleague, physiotherapist Phil Burt.

The doctor initially claimed it had been sent in error by supplier Fit4Sport and told his colleagues he would send it back. He persuaded an employee at the company to send an email supporting this and stating that the Testogel would be destroyed.

It was not until a 2017 interview with UK Anti-Doping that Dr Freeman brought Sutton into the picture, while he claimed for the first time during the hearing that he had taken the Testogel home and washed it down the sink.

The tribunal reserved its strongest criticism for Dr Freeman’s mixing up of patches and gel – he had initially made reference to the testosterone as patches and implied, because they would be visible, they would not be used for doping.

“The Tribunal considered his account in this regard was wholly untenable. It was clear that Dr Freeman had been deliberately seeking to distance himself from an understanding that what he had ordered was a gel,” it said.

“He was being dishonest in this area of his evidence and seeking to mislead the Tribunal.”

The GMC’s QC, Simon Jackson, accepted that he had not provided any direct evidence linking the Testogel to a rider and, in her summing up, Mary O’Rourke QC, on behalf of Dr Freeman, said the case was built on “surmise and speculation”.

O’Rourke said: “They haven’t got a smidgen of evidence to show that he ordered the Testogel in order to dope a rider. They can’t identify a rider… it doesn’t add up.”

The tribunal, though, disagreed, saying: “In May 2011, Dr Freeman, the team doctor for a team of elite cyclists and a member of the anti-doping working group, ordered a doping ‘drug of choice’ for that sport.

Dr Freeman's QC Mary O'Rourke, left, argued the case was built on
Dr Freeman’s QC Mary O’Rourke, left, argued the case was built on “surmise and speculation” (Eleanor Crooks/PA)

“Upon its arrival, he was dishonest about why it had been sent, removed it from the Velodrome, and it was never seen again. The Tribunal found that Dr Freeman has been dishonest in its regard ever since.

“Overall, then, taking all those factors into account, and 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.

“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 tribunal also determined it had been proved that the motive for Dr Freeman’s actions was to conceal his conduct.

Dr Freeman's claim that the testosterone was ordered to treat Shane Sutton was not believed by the tribunal
Dr Freeman’s claim that the testosterone was ordered to treat Shane Sutton was not believed by the tribunal (Tim Ireland/PA)

The one charge that was found to be not proved was that Dr Freeman knew the Testogel was not clinically indicated for Sutton.

Regarding that decision, the tribunal said Sutton was “entirely irrelevant to Dr Freeman’s consideration at those times”.

The tribunal will sit again next week to assess whether Dr Freeman’s fitness to practise is impaired because of his misconduct.

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Dr Freeman is also facing two UKAD charges regarding the ordering of the testosterone.

In a statement, UKAD chief executive Nicole Sapstead said: “UKAD can confirm that Dr Richard Freeman has been charged under the UK Anti-Doping Rules 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.”

British Cycling and Ineos Grenadiers – formerly Team Sky – both sought to distance themselves from Dr Freeman’s conduct.

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British Cycling chief executive Brian Facer said: “The finding that the 2011 delivery of testosterone gel was intended for the illegal enhancement of a rider’s performance is extremely disturbing and will rightly be investigated by UK Anti-Doping, whose work will have our wholehearted support.

“The wider actions of Dr Freeman described in the tribunal fall a mile short of the standards we expect.”

Facer went on to detail the improvements the governing body has made since Dr Freeman’s departure in 2017, with much greater scrutiny of the medical department.

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 team to the grassroots.”

A statement from Ineos read: “The team fully supports the work of the GMC and it is very clear from their report that Richard Freeman fell short of the ethical standards required of him as a doctor and acted dishonestly.

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“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.”

Questions remain for both organisations, though, and Damian Collins MP, former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, which held hearings into possible violations of anti-doping regulations, said the verdict represented a failure of both British Cycling and Team Sky as a whole.

“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,” he said.

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight said: “The finding that Dr Richard Freeman is guilty of ordering a banned performance enhancing-drug intended for an athlete marks a terrible day for the reputation of British cycling.”

Sally Munday, CEO of UK Sport, added: “In light of today’s verdict, all in sport must send a clear message to staff, athletes and sports fans that doping will not be tolerated.”