The hunt was on for the intended recipient of banned drugs ahead of the 2012 Olympics on Friday as British Cycling’s golden era was left in tatters by a bombshell verdict that their former doctor had ordered testosterone for an athlete.
Calls for UK Anti-Doping to unearth the cyclist or cyclists who may have cheated were widespread after a medical tribunal sensationally found former British Cycling and Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman guilty of ordering the performance-boosting drug to the national velodrome in 2011 “knowing or believing it was to be administered to an athlete to improve their athletic performance”.
The decision handed down by the independent Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service cast a shadow over an entire generation of British riders. It led to calls for Sir Dave Brailsford, who denies any wrongdoing, to be suspended by Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky) pending a full investigation. On a dramatic day, which could have enormous ramifications for the sport in this country:
UK Anti-Doping launched two separate probes against Freeman and was urged to retest all samples from the years he was at British Cycling. Shane Sutton, the former British Cycling head coach, said he had been used as a “scapegoat” and added it was “essential to find out who the doctor ordered it [the testosterone] for
British Cycling described the findings as “extremely disturbing”, admitting it was “a day for sober reflection” for the sport in this country. Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee chair Julian Knight said it “marked a terrible day for the reputation of British cycling” and “left several questions to answer”
Questions were raised over whether the World Anti-Doping Agency’s 10-year statute of limitations might kick in should the rider’s identity (s) not be established by May. Team Ineos insisted they did “not believe that any athlete ever used or sought to use Testogel or any other performance-enhancing substance.”
The ruling, which triggered arguably the biggest drugs scandal ever to engulf British sport, was the latest twist in a saga that has dragged on for over two years. The fallout could be extensive.
Freeman, who was suspended by British Cycling four years ago and now works as a GP in Lancashire, has since been charged by UKAD with two anti-doping rule violations arising from evidence given during the tribunal: Possession of Prohibited Substances and/or Prohibited Methods and Tampering or Attempted Tampering with any part of Doping Control.
But the pressure was growing to discover who the unnamed rider or riders referred to in the ruling could be and how far the scandal might have spread. The 44-page report did not name any riders, nor did the General Medical Council, who brought the charges against Freeman, manage to establish the identity of any athletes involved. UK Sport declined to comment beyond noting the panel’s decision.
Freeman was found guilty by the tribunal, on the balance of probability, of ordering a batch of Testogel to the velodrome in 2011 “knowing or believing it was to be administered to an athlete to improve their athletic performance”.
He was also found guilty of “concealing” his conduct by orchestrating an elaborate cover-up. The doctor had claimed he was “bullied” into ordering the drugs by Sutton to treat the Australian’s alleged erectile dysfunction.
But Sutton vehemently denied he ever suffered from the condition and the tribunal found him to be a credible witness while describing Freeman’s version of events as “implausible”. It is unclear whether Freeman will appeal the ruling, but that did not stop MPs from calling for heads.
Damien Collins, the former chairman of the DCMS select committee who spearheaded its own investigation into doping claims against Team Sky, said Brailsford should apologize for what took place on his watch.
“It’s essential now that we understand which cyclist or cyclists this was for and whether he (Freeman) ordered this of his own initiative or whether someone asked him to do it – and who those people were,” Collins said.
Clive Efford, the former shadow sports minister and now a member of the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee, went further, calling for Brailsford “and anyone else in charge at British Cycling and Team Sky at the time” to stand aside. ”
Clearly, there are questions to be answered, and people should be suspended. At the same time, this is properly investigated, he said, adding that the ruling exposed Team Sky’s “zero tolerance” approach to doping as having been “a tissue of lies”.
Neither Brailsford nor any riders from British Cycling’s golden era — which included 24 medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and six Tour de France victories between 2012 and 2018 — commented, but his team, now called Ineos Grenadiers, released a statement in which they acknowledged Freeman’s actions “fell short of the ethical standards required of him as a doctor”.
The team added they did 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,” they said. “We will continue to give our full support and co-operation to UKAD, as we have done throughout this process.”
Sutton said in a statement that he was “saddened” by the affair and disappointed he was used as a “scapegoat” by Freeman. “It has caused great pain to both my family and me,” he said.
“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 Sir Dave Brailsford nor I 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.”
Freeman’s hearing continues next week where the panel will begin to consider his fitness to practice.
The words of British Cycling chief Brian Cookson have worrying air about them now there are questions if a line was crossed.
By Tom Cary
It is easy to forget just how head-over-heels Britain fell for cycling 10 years ago. When Mark Cavendish became the first British rider to win the green jersey at the Tour de France in 2011 and backed that up by claiming the first British world title in the men’s road race since 1965, he was crowned the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.
One year later, Sir Bradley Wiggins — just plain old Bradley back then — became the first British man to win the Tour de France. He backed that up by claiming the 2012 Olympic time trial title, one of eight gold medals won by British riders at those golden Games. Wiggins celebrated his victory on a throne at Hampton Court Palace. The Sun printed cut-out-and-keep 24-carat Wiggo sideburns for fans to wear roadside. Like Cavendish before him, Wiggins won SPOTY that year, memorably playing Wonderwall on stage at the after-party.
This was the era when cycling went from minor to major in the British sporting firmament. When Dave Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ philosophy became the most valuable currency in UK Sport with its sterilized pillows and duvets. British success forged at the ‘Medal Factory’.
Reading the foreword to the governing body’s annual report of 2011 is instructive. It’s like being transported to a totally different world. Brian Cookson, who was president of British Cycling between 1996 and 2013, opens by mentioning his “profound sense of pride in being part of this great organization” and goes on to say that the Great Britain Cycling Team will go into the following year’s Olympic Games “as the nation to beat in almost every event”.
“A truly remarkable position,” Cookson notes, “that brings with it massive levels of expectation and huge pressure. I am, however, certain of one thing — our team and their backup staff will leave no stone unturned and will spare no effort in their quest for medals.” Cookson was right about that, at least.
While Richard Freeman’s two-year fitness-to-practice tribunal has been very messy and hugely unsatisfactory, effectively pinning the blame on one man without establishing for whom he ordered the drugs and with little likelihood that UKAD will be able to fill in the gaps, one thing it did prove beyond question was just how hard those involved were in leaving no stone unturned.
When Team Sky entered the sport in 2010 and promised to do it cleanly, it was like a breath of fresh air for fans wearied by years of doping scandals. But the image which emerged of British Cycling and Team Sky during the hearing did not tally with the idea sold to the public; bullying and intimidation, haphazard medical record-keeping, a disturbing lack of curiosity from senior management.
We heard evidence that Freeman had researched the effects of Viagra on testosterone levels the month before ordering the Testogel. Doctors were jettisoned from Team Sky because they were “worriers” about issues such as IV recovery and “would not put Sky in place to compete to win”. The revelations came on the back of other notable ethical scandals in recent years. The use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions and heavy-duty painkillers.
Team Sky always insisted they pushed right up to the line but never beyond it. Friday’s ruling by a medical tribunal suggests that at least one person within the organization was prepared to do that – and it is hard to imagine he acted alone.
In among the calls for blood samples to be retested and Dave Brailsford to be suspended pending further investigation, one of the most poignant reactions came from Cookson. “I was proud and privileged to have overseen a period of unprecedented success in the sport, leading to a massive increase in its popularity and profile,” he said.
“That this should now be open to question is a matter of extreme concern to me and all of those who work or have worked behind the scenes in our sport, in governance, management, administration, and coaching.” His words could not have clashed more markedly with the sense of optimism and pride that pervaded in his year-end notes 10 years ago.