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Erectile dysfunction, testosterone deliveries and bullying – inside the medical tribunal that tore British Cycling apart


Erectile dysfunction, deliveries of testosterone, and bullying — inside the medical tribunal that tore British Cycling apart

The decision handed down by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service on Friday that Dr. Richard Freeman ordered testosterone “knowing or believing” it was going to be given to a rider “to improve their athletic performance” is merely the latest dramatic twist to one of the most tortuous sagas in British sporting history.

A two-year, stop-start marathon that frustrated and shocked in equal measure – and which ultimately threw up more questions than it answered. It was a never-ending soap opera; endless delays followed by moments of high farce, with witnesses storming out and jokes about erectile dysfunction.

The truth is some of the more lurid details overshadowed the seriousness of what was alleged — claims of doping, bullying and intimidation, haphazard medical record-keeping, and a worrying lack of curiosity from senior management has enormous implications for Team Sky and British Cycling.

The hearing painted a grim picture of the organization a decade ago, one entirely at odds with the attention-to-detail, leave-no-stone-unturned reputation being pushed by Team Sky and British Cycling back then.

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The mysterious delivery of testosterone

The Freeman hearing began on February 5, 2019, but its genesis was well before that. The delivery of a box of Testogel to British Cycling’s headquarters in May 2011 — akin to Semtex turning up at the House of Commons — was established by UK Anti-Doping (Ukad) as part of its investigation into the ‘Jiffy bag’ affair in the autumn of 2016.

It became public knowledge when Dr. Steve Peters, the celebrated psychiatrist and former head of medicine at British Cycling, told the Sunday Times about it in March 2017. Peters admitted he had known about the gels. He said he had questioned Freeman, who told him the package had been sent in error and that Freeman had shown him confirmation it had been returned to the supplier.

Dr. Steve Peters – Erectile dysfunction, testosterone deliveries, and bullying — inside the medical tribunal that tore British Cycling apart – WARREN ALLOTT

There was the whiff of a smoking gun if any part of that explanation failed to stack up. But when Ukad closed its Jiffy bag investigation in the autumn of 2017, frustrated at the lack of medical records and claiming its investigation had been “hindered” by British Cycling, it looked like that might be that. Only it was not. Ukad had handed over its evidence to the General Medical Council (GMC), who decided to investigate separately.

This was significant because, whereas Ukad has no legal authority to compel anyone to cooperate, the GMC has the power to require disclosure of information under the Medical Act. It can remove medical licenses.

Throughout 2018, allegations emerged that the testosterone had been ordered deliberately. There were rumors — subsequently proven — that Freeman would claim that he had called the testosterone to treat a non-rider. There were even rumors it was to treat Shane Sutton’s erectile dysfunction.

Towards the end of 2018, the GMC finished building its case against Freeman, and a hearing was scheduled by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) for February 2019. But no one knew for sure what would be claimed. And the lingering sense that the package might have been ordered for an athlete or athletes for nefarious purposes continued to swirl.

Accusations of a cover-up

At the heart of the GMC’s case was the explosive allegation that Freeman’s “motive for placing the order was to obtain Testogel to administer to an athlete to improve their athletic performance.” Freeman had been formally accused of attempted doping.

The summary fleshed out some of the details about the case, including the allegation that Freeman had not sent the package back in May straight away after it was discovered but had instead written to the supplier, Oldham-based FIt4Sport, in October of that year asking them to send a false note to state that he had done so. The GMC further alleged that Freeman had lied repeatedly about the delivery — including to Ukad investigators — to conceal his motive for placing the order. Effectively, Freeman was accused of orchestrating a far more elaborate cover-up.

However, the case was beset by delays in keeping with what was to come over the next 24 months. Freeman’s celebrated QC Mary O’Rourke — who also represented former Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro and “Bloodgate” doctor Wendy Chapman — immediately requested an adjournment relating to Freeman’s health (Freeman claimed he had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts after all the controversies surrounding Bradley Wiggins’ use of therapeutic use exemptions and the so-called Jiffy bag saga). On March 5, 2019, the hearing was adjourned indefinitely.

The ‘erectile dysfunction’ defense

On October 8, 2019, almost eight months after the hearing was initially due, the case finally began in earnest. As well as an all-new panel, there was a subtle but critical change in the wording of the charges, removing the notion of “motive” for ordering the testosterone.

Instead of saying that Freeman was motivated to dope an athlete, he was accused of ordering the Testogel knowing “a) it was not clinically indicated” for a non-athlete member of staff [Sutton] and b) “knowing or believing it was to be administered to an athlete to improve their athletic performance.” O’Rourke said she and her client were “very disappointed” with the change to the wording.

The complete list of charges was made public at this stage. Freeman would contest only four of the GMC’s 22 allegations. He would admit to ordering the drugs and lying to cover his tracks. He admitted he had told “lots of lies”, including to Ukad investigators. But he would deny the central charge of ordering the Testogel “knowing or believing” it was intended for an athlete.

Freeman’s case was that Sutton had “bullied” him into ordering the testosterone, allegedly to treat Sutton’s erectile dysfunction. Simon Jackson QC also suggested for the first time that Sutton had become “Freeman’s scapegoat to cover up his earlier misconduct”, adding that the two had had a tremendous personal falling out.

The Australian, Jackson said, would vehemently deny that he had ever suffered from ED and would produce the medical records to prove it. The GMC’s case was that Freeman ordered the testosterone with the intention of “micro-dosing” — a way of improving an athlete’s performance with small top-ups of PEDs.

There was another tangentially interesting plotline that emerged at this point. Before the prosecution laid out its case, O’Rourke announced she would ask the GMC to make a section 35A legal application to the Daily Mail to release an alleged document relating to the Freeman case.

O’Rourke claimed a “witness statement or affidavit” signed by Sutton was provided to the newspaper as an “insurance policy against any defamation claims” by Bradley Wiggins, Dave Brailsford, or Freeman in exchange for the Jiffy bag story.

O’Rourke suggested the document was relevant to the Freeman case because it contained “several lies” and was “inconsistent” with Sutton’s subsequent evidence to the British parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) select committee report that was published in 2018. The Daily Mail never admitted to or released the alleged document.

From ‘Jiffygate’ to ‘Stiffygate.’

Perhaps the most explosive day in the two-year hearing occurred on November 12, 2019. It proved to be one of the most dramatic, toe-curlingly embarrassing days the sport has known. Sutton — called as a witness by the GMC — gave evidence. The Australian would end up storming out of the hearing, which he described briefly as a “shitshow” after being accused of being a “serial liar” and a “doper with a doping history”.

Shane Sutton — – MERCURY PRESS & MEDIA

It was a farce. Freeman, who had been given “vulnerable witness” status because of his poor mental health (which also meant he could only sit for a certain number of hours each day), was on the other side of a screen from Sutton. But the Australian directed much of his invective straight at his former colleague, labeling him a “spineless individual” and imploring him to come out from behind the screen and look him in the eye.

Sutton also accused O’Rourke of being a “bully”, denied that he had ever doped, swore on his three-year-old daughter’s life that he never ordered the Testogel, and said he was prepared to take a lie detector test. As for allegations that he had erectile dysfunction, Sutton shouted: “You are telling the press I can’t get a hard-on — my wife wants to testify that you are a bloody liar!” As one wag quipped: we had gone from Jiffy to stiffy. This episode would be used as a key plank in O’Rourke’s closing arguments — proof of Sutton’s explosive, bullying nature and unreliable character.

The Freeman Show | Best lines of the long-running saga

The Murdochs reduce Freeman to tears

Sutton refused to return to the hearing, but other witnesses were called as the defense tried to paint Freeman as a victim. In contrast, the GMC, on the other side, continued to label him an “ambitious” sports doctor and a “risk-taker” who was prepared to break the rules.

Peters was one of the key witnesses. His recollections about Freeman’s mental state were troubling, although some found Peters’ lack of curiosity to ensure the issue was resolved in the first place equally so. Phil Burt, the man who discovered the Testogel package in 2011 and raised the alarm, told the hearing about the extent of the fallout between Sutton and Freeman. We heard evidence that Freeman had researched the effects of Viagra on testosterone levels the month before ordering the Testogel.

There was another 10-month delay — partly Covid-induced — before Freeman finally took to the witness box. He was only meant to be on the stand for five days, but his cross-examination lasted seven weeks. At this point, he suddenly threw in, for the first time, the claim that he had taken the Testogel home with him on the day it arrived at the velodrome and flushed it down the sink. As the tribunal pointed out in their ruling on Friday, they had to take his word for that.

Freeman’s description of being reduced to tears at a meeting with Rupert Murdoch’s lawyer, and the billionaire’s son James, as they pressed him on what exactly he was going to tell a DCMS select committee investigation into doping three years ago (he eventually pulled out) — a time he had described himself as “suicidal” — was one particularly troubling episode. There were questions about his (lack of) medical record-keeping, his loss and destruction of company laptops containing said medical records, and his mental health. There were further worrying claims of bullying and potential cover-up at the highest levels.

There were questions about Team Sky’s medical practices in the run-up to 2011, specifically the change of policy, which saw them acquire the services of several ‘cycling’ doctors at the end of 2010 because the previous ones were not experts in areas such as IV recovery and “would not put Sky in place to compete to win”.

The package mystery remains unsolved.

The hearing ended remotely, with the country in lockdown once again. Testimony from Nicole Cooke’s father, Tony, and Sutton’s former team-mate at ANC Halfords, Testoslav Palov, contained much unsubstantiated gossip. It was a messy conclusion to a messy two-year saga. The closing submissions from the respective legal teams in January and February are an extension of that. Both claimed to have made their cases beyond all doubt.

In the end, the tribunal was not persuaded by Freeman’s testimony, ruling that on the balance of probabilities, he ordered the testosterone “knowing or believing it was to be administered to an athlete to improve their athletic performance”. We still do not know who the alleged recipient was. Perhaps we never will. Perhaps Freeman will appeal the verdict. But with Ukad having already charged him with two rule violations off the back of his evidence, there may be more revelations. One thing is clear; it has been an utterly devastating episode for the sport and those involved in it. What key figures in British Cycling have said.


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