Former Team Sky Doctor’s Trial Brings Doping Allegations Back
What’s the hearing?
The inquiry is a General Medical Council hearing into alleged misconduct by Richard Freeman, a former team doctor for Team Sky and British Cycling, which is the national governing body of bike racing in the U.K. Specifically, the inquiry is about Freeman’s role in ordering a shipment of 30 packets of testosterone ointment that were delivered to the then-joint Team Sky and British Cycling headquarters at the Manchester Velodrome in 2011, and his actions afterward to cover it up.
The hearing is separate from the British Parliamentary Select Committee investigation into doping and Team Sky that closed last year, and from the U.K. Anti-Doping inquiry in 2017. If Freeman is found guilty of misconduct, he could lose his medical license in the U.K. Freeman left British Cycling in 2017 and had left Sky before that.
Wait, this happened at Team Sky in2011? Why are we dealing with it now?
The inquiries didn’t start until late 2016 when the information came to light. Freeman emerged as a central character in the various investigations. Freeman was asked to appear in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee in 2017 but never did, citing personal health problems. Instead, he sent written answers, but that delay contributed to a very long timeline—the inquiry took over two years. His medical tribunal was also originally slated for last February but delayed, again on account of Freeman’s health problems.
What are the charges?
There are 22 counts of misconduct, all surrounding the Testogel delivery. Freeman has admitted to 18 of them, including that he ordered the Testogel and then tried to make it look like he hadn’t. He disputes the other four, which involve who the product was intended for, whether he knew that, and whether his actions afterward were intended to conceal the true intended recipient and Freeman’s knowledge of that.
Freeman’s conduct throughout the whole saga has been questionable. He failed to keep adequate records on medications, failed to electronically back up medical records as required, and says the only computer on which he kept them was lost or stolen in 2014. And in his final prehearing submission, he admitted to numerous lies including that he attempted to cover up the episode by saying that the shipment had been sent in error and that he convinced the shipper to tell the same story.
At his hearing, Freeman has so far stuck to his latest story, which is that the Testogel was ordered to treat a staff member’s personal medical condition. Freeman contends that the staffer, former Sky and British Cycling head coach and technical director Shane Sutton, suffered from erectile dysfunction. Sutton angrily denied that this week and abruptly left the hearing after clashing with Freeman’s lawyer, who called him a doper and liar.
So how does this involve possible doping on Team Sky?
Stay with us here; it gets complex. In September of 2016, a group of Russian state-sponsored hackers known as Fancy Bear released a trove of data stolen from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s anti-doping administration and management system. Two of the items were records of Wiggins’s and Chris Froome’s use of what are called Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE), a WADA protocol where an athlete can take an otherwise-banned substance under special circumstances.
One of Wiggins’s TUEs was for a corticosteroid called triamcinolone acetonide, which he took in June 2011 and again in June 2012, just before the Tour de France. Wiggins claims he used it to treat asthma, but it’s also thought to help riders shed weight.
Not long after the Fancy Bear hack, the Daily Mail published a story alleging that Team Sky had hand-couriered a mysterious package—the so-called jiffy bag, which is British slang for a padded mailing envelope—to Wiggins at the June 2011 Criterium du Dauphine stage race. At the time, Wiggins, the team leader at Sky, was preparing for the Tour de France. He failed to finish that year’s Tour but would win the 2012 edition. The courier, Simon Cope, told the Daily Mail he did not know what was in the package.
In late October, 2016, the British Parliament announced it was looking into the jiffy bag. U.K. Anti-Doping also opened its own investigation. The Parliamentary inquiry into what was in the bag also uncovered other information, including the Testogel order now at the heart of the Freeman tribunal.
Testosterone in any form is banned in and out of competition under the WADA Code. Doping is not one of the issues under consideration at the medical tribunal, but if the tribunal rejects Freeman’s explanation that the testosterone was for a staff member, then the likeliest explanation is that it was in fact for a rider.
How does Freeman’s tribunal relate to all that?
Freeman’s poor record-keeping was a key issue in UKAD case, which it eventually closed without a finding because the lack of records left it unable to definitively learn the contents of the jiffy bag. Team Sky and Wiggins have said there was no doping at Sky, but the Parliamentary Select Committee investigation report said that Team Sky “crossed an ethical line,” with its TUE program and said the committee believed the team had abused the TUE process to use corticosteroids for performance-enhancing purposes.
The medical tribunal offers a rare opportunity for investigators to question Freeman directly and get answers to questions that remain unresolved. And since WADA in 2015 extended the statute of limitations for doping offenses from eight years to 10 years, UKAD has said it may re-open the case if fresh information comes to light.
Because of Freeman’s central role in the Testogel order, the medical hearing may be the best chance to learn the truth of what happened there. That’s no given, however; Sutton, who appeared voluntarily, did not return for a second day of questioning. And in testimony, Steve Peters, British Cycling’s former medical director, cast doubt on Freeman’s story that it was for Sutton, but also said he doubted that the testosterone had been ordered for an athlete.
Based on what Freeman’s already admitted to, and his admitted history of lying, the tribunal may find him guilty of misconduct while still not getting the full story on the Testogel order. In other words: after three years and multiple investigations, we may be no closer to knowing what really happened.