There had long been cracks in the edifice marked British Cycling. On Friday, the roof fell in.
The verdict of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service places an asterisk against every British rider in the most successful era of the sport. Against knights of the realm, creators of milestone achievements, Tour de France winners, Olympic gold medallists, shapers of a philosophy and ethic that underpins Team GB.
This is, quite possibly, the biggest scandal in British sporting history. We were so good. How did we do it? Those who reviewed the evidence around Doctor Richard Freeman think, on balance of probabilities, that we cheated.
Dr Richard Freeman was found guilty of ordering banned testosterone ‘knowing or believing’ it was to be given to a rider to improve their athletic performance
Who exactly — they don’t know. How precisely — they can only speculate. Yet the conclusion of a tribunal that seemed to pre-date the Hippocratic Oath itself is that Freeman took delivery of testosterone to provide to a rider, and then lied about it.
He destroyed laptops, left hugely convenient gaps in his record-taking, suffered mystifying absences of memory or holes in his knowledge, and the tribunal concluded accordingly. He was at it.
This is a method of deduction called Occam’s razor, after the 14th century theologist William of Ockham. Boiled down, he reasoned that the simplest solution is usually the right one.
Faced with competing explanations for an event, shave away the outlandish outer layers until only the most obvious remains. That, Ockham extrapolated, is usually what has happened.
The doctor worked for Team Sky (pictured) and British Cycling between 2010 and 2017
The tribunal considered the possibility that a doctor would be unaware of testosterone’s properties, that he would misguidedly use it to treat erectile dysfunction, that he would have packages sent to his place of work despite the enormous jeopardy for what was essentially a private matter, that it was pure coincidence cycling’s drug of choice would arrive addressed to the leading medic for British Cycling and Team Sky and concluded: No.
The simplest explanation held the answer. Freeman ordered testosterone to dope a rider. We just don’t know which rider. Maybe a lot of them. The suspicion spreads wide. ‘If it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck,’ wrote Richard Ings, the respected former head of Australian Sports Anti-Doping on Friday, ‘then it’s probably a duck.’ Occam’s duck, maybe.
And this cloud will not just settle on some household-name athletes. Summing up at last month’s hearing, Freeman’s QC, Mary O’Rourke, referred to Sir Dave Brailsford as the spectre at the proceedings. A ghostly presence, heard about but not from. Brailsford, the maestro of marginal gains, was never called, never questioned.
Shane Sutton, who was and did not take it well, issued a statement on Friday. ‘I’d like to stress that neither I nor Sir Dave Brailsford knew about the testosterone order,’ he insisted. Yet like so much of what has tumbled out across approximately 17 months of inquisition, there will be those who remain incredulous.
On the day in 2011 that Phil Burt, head of physiotherapy at British Cycling between 2006 and 2018, discovered the delivery of Testogel, he took it immediately to clinical director Steve Peters, who was in a room with Freeman, seeking an explanation.
Freeman claimed he ordered the testosterone at the request of former coach Shane Sutton to treat his erectile dysfunction – claims that the Australian angrily denied
Freeman lied. He said the delivery had been made in error. It was the first of many clumsy cover-ups.
Yet even if Peters accepted it entirely at face value — and there is no reason why he should not — given testosterone’s significance in cycling, is it plausible that this was not even mentioned to Brailsford, whose reputation for involvement and micro-management is without measure?
A delivery of Testogel to the velodrome and Brailsford is out of the loop? It would be like the Marvel universe accepting a shipment of Kryptonite and nobody telling Superman. Yet, throughout, this is what we are asked to believe of British Cycling and its masters.
That a body with such attention to detail that it transformed the sport were in fact a bunch of silly old scatterbrains; who didn’t keep proper medical records, who couldn’t remember what medicine was in a Jiffy bag flown across Europe, who didn’t know exactly how testosterone worked despite, in Freeman’s case, writing a book called The Line — Where Medicine and Sport Collide.
‘As team doctor for British Cycling and Team Sky, Dr Richard Freeman treated the world’s most successful cyclists, such as Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott and Victoria Pendleton,’ runs the blurb.
Dubbed ‘the Gold Medal factory’, the verdict has called into question both teams’ success
‘From 2009 until 2017, the ‘Doc’ was part of the team who became national heroes with Olympic and Tour de France victories. In The Line, Dr Freeman reveals the medical principles and practices that helped lead these athletes to success — the ideas we now consider commonplace, but were in fact the Doc’s own innovations.’
SHANE SUTTON 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 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.’
And this is the man who told the tribunal he didn’t know testosterone improved performance. Other doctors are available, apparently.
Brailsford is also a published author. The Team Sky Way promises to reveal ‘the tips and secrets that deliver an edge; from training methods and equipment maintenance, to nutrition, tactics and psychology…’
And whether to tell the boss when a parcel of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs has just arrived at headquarters? Maybe they’re saving that for the paperback — although the one rogue doctor line of defence, if pleaded, does not say much for the senior executives. If Freeman acted alone and got away with it for so long, where were the men supposedly obsessed with the details?
Where were Brailsford and Peters? Shouldn’t they have noticed the effects of these marginal gains? Shouldn’t they have been a little curious?
It is hard to recall a scandal more ruinous for the reputation of British sport. Brailsford is the Team GB poster boy, the guru held up as setting the standards for all.
He sent British Cycling into the Olympic stratosphere, he took a team who finished nowhere in the 2010 Tour de France and built a mighty force that won in all but a single year between 2012 and 2019.
Yet every rider who emerged, and thrived, on Freeman’s watch is now under suspicion. From Bailsford down there is taint, a gnawing doubt. Lance Armstrong spoke of standing at a crossroads, making a decision that changed his sport and his life. It would appear Freeman came to a similar moral junction and made that same call.
What is yet to spill out is who, and how many, went with him.
HOW A DECADE OF TURMOIL UNFOLDED
By George Bond
May 16, 2011
As doctor for British Cycling and Team Sky, Freeman orders 30 Testogel sachets from Fit4Sports to the National Cycling Centre in Manchester.
Feb 28, 2017
Freeman fails to report to a Parliamentary committee hearing into doping, claiming he is too ill to attend.
Oct 20, 2017
Freeman resigns from Team Sky, ending an eight-year association, citing ill health.
Oct 29, 2019
Start of Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) hearing. He admits to 18 of 22 charges — including that he asked Fit4Sports to state that the sachets were sent in error — but claims GB coach Shane Sutton bullied him into ordering Testogel for Sutton’s erectile dysfunction and not for athletes. Sutton denies this.
Oct 7, 2020
Freeman claims he had not read the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules on ordering Testogel and thought it would be permitted for non-athletes. He then admits he destroyed the sachets, and that he damaged his laptop before turning it in.
Feb 12, 2021
UKAD charge Freeman with two anti-doping violations. On Friday, Freeman is found guilty of ordering testosterone for an unnamed rider.