The former doctor to some of the UK’s most successful cyclists and teams was found guilty on Friday of ordering a banned drug that he knew would be used to improve a rider’s performance.
The verdict, an astonishing end to one of the most famous doping cases in cycling since Lance Armstrong’s drug scandal, which nearly destroyed the sport’s credibility nearly a decade ago, cast new doubts about the successes and practices of some of the world’s greatest cyclists of the past decade.
Doctor Richard Freeman worked for the Tour de France-winning Team Sky and also for the British Cycling Federation, which oversees the country’s Olympic program. He was found guilty by the UK Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service for ordering testosterone, a steroid, for an unnamed driver in 2011. The tribunal said Freeman “knew or believed” the drug would be used to help a driver or his team win.
The tribunal also said Freeman, Team Sky’s chief medical officer from 2010 to 2016, fabricated a series of lies to cover up both the drug purchase and intended use.
The case had lasted two years and continues to raise serious questions about Team Sky, which is now being called Ineos Grenadiers, one of the most dominant teams in cycling history, with champion riders like Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins.
The team is now rife with doping allegations and has been compared to Armstrong’s United States Postal Service team for having enjoyed international success and having the top drivers on its rosters – but also because of persistent doubts about the methods that may have fueled them .
“It is extremely worrying to find that testosterone gel supplies in 2011 were intended to illegally enhance a rider’s performance,” said Brian Facer, British Cycling General Manager. said in a statement. Facer said the organization will leave any “further action” related to the case in the hands of UK anti-doping officials, “whose work will have our full support”.
Freeman was a staple of the UK cycling teams for years as the country and its riders rose to the pinnacle of the sport. He worked for British Cycling from 2010 to 2017 and was part of the organization’s concerted effort to invest in the sport before the UK hosted the London 2012 Olympics.
This investment paid off: British drivers led the medal count in cycling in Londonwith 12 medals, including eight gold medals – twice as many as Germany, the team that took second place in the table of cycling medals. It repeated its success at the 2016 Rio Games and won another dozen medals, including six gold medals.
In 2012, a year after Freeman was accused of receiving a shipment of testosterone, Team Sky won its first Tour de France. Wiggins drove triumphantly down the Champs-Élysées in Paris while his teammates celebrated around him. That scene would almost become an annual event: from 2012 to 2019, the British team won the tour seven times in eight years. Froome stood on the podium four times.
The success of British teams and British drivers in major international competitions was recognized with the start of a cycling boom in England. But as is so often the case in sport, the dominance of the team has also cast doubt on how its drivers got so good and so fast. In the case of Team Sky, speculation about the team’s possible drug use was backed by some evidence.
In this latter case, Freeman, who admitted having received the testosterone and lied to UK anti-doping officials about it, initially said he did not order the drug and the company made a mistake in submitting it to the team. He then admitted to ordering it but claimed he was bullied by British cycling and Team Sky coach Shane Sutton, who asked Freeman to receive the drug to treat his erectile dysfunction.
The tribunal called Freeman’s claim “an elaborate lie”, although the doctor continues to argue that it is correct.
Sutton has vehemently denied Freeman’s claim. In a statement to The Daily Mail on Friday, he said he was disappointed that Freeman used him as a scapegoat.
“I want to emphasize that neither I nor Sir Dave Brailsford knew about the testosterone order,” said Sutton, referring to Brailsford, long-time manager of Team Sky and former performance director for British Cycling. “But I think it’s important to find out who the doctor ordered it for. Hopefully that’s what the UK anti-doping company’s investigation will show. “
The British anti-doping company that oversees anti-doping in the UK announced on Friday that it had accused Freeman of possessing banned substances and manipulating or tampering with doping controls. Freeman has been suspended pending an investigation, the agency said in a statement.
That investigation is expected to look into Team Sky’s potential use of testosterone, which the tribunal on Friday named the “doping agent of choice”. The drug has been used in cycling for decades in forms such as injections, pills, creams, and gels to improve recovery, and it has long been banned as a performance-enhancing substance.
Testosterone is so effective that it helps drivers recover from strenuous exertion that some still use it despite the risk of testing positive. Floyd Landis used it to help him win the 2006 Tour de France, but he subsequently tested positive for it and was deprived of victory.
Testosterone is just one of the drugs that Team Sky riders have been accused of to improve their performance. In 2016, Russian hackers broke into a system of the World Anti-Doping Agency that tracks the authorized use of prohibited drugs by athletes, so-called therapeutic drug exemptions. The hack revealed that Wiggins and Froome were both using drugs, including corticosteroids, while running for Team Sky.
A later report from the UK Parliamentary Committee suggested that Wiggins had been using a strong corticosteroid ahead of his 2012 Tour win, not for medical reasons (he claimed it was asthma) but to improve his power to weight ratio. A light, yet strong, rider would find it easier to run up steep mountains than a heavier one. Wiggins denied that he had used the drug to aid his performanceand he has spent years explaining these and other doping allegations.
In 2016, in the weeks leading up to winning the Tour de France that summer, the UK anti-doping company opened an investigation into a package delivered to Team Sky, allegedly destined for Wiggins. But the agency could not prove the contents of this package, partly because Freeman had claimed that his laptop with the team’s medical records was stolen while on vacation.
UK Anti-Doping declined to discuss Friday’s finding against Freeman, except saying it upheld the decision.
“We do not intend to make any further comments at the moment,” the agency said in a statement.