Marginal or medical gains? Freeman verdict leaves questions unanswered

In that golden decade when Team Sky and British Cycling won almost everything in sight, their media acolytes would often attribute their success to marginal gains, the pursuit of microscopic advantages in myriad areas, right down to washing hands before entering a building.

However, a different form of handwashing took place after a medical tribunal in Manchester dispensed its guilty verdict against the former Team Sky and British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman for ordering banned testosterone “knowing or believing” it was for an unnamed rider.

For in a statement released hours after the verdict, Ineos Grenadiers – formerly Team Sky – said Freeman had fallen “short of the ethical standards required of him as a doctor and acted dishonestly” before adding that the “team does 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.”

It was an attempt to scrub away a devastating verdict that will send shockwaves through British sport and to move on. But this case is too important for that to happen. And while it might sound a strange thing to say about a tribunal that has already lasted 765 days, this is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end. To borrow from Winston Churchill, it is perhaps the end of the beginning.

Three crucial questions remain. First, who was the rider? Second, who else knew? And finally, was Team Sky and British Cycling’s success down to marginal gains – or were medical ones involved too?

Clearly, Dr Freeman lied repeatedly – including to UK Anti-Doping investigators over ordering testosterone in 2011 – although there was no direct evidence in the 46-page summary of the case that he had doped a rider. Instead it seems the tribunal appears to have decided that Freeman had told so many falsehoods that his claims that he bought 30 sachets of Testogel for Sutton as he was being bullied by him should also be rejected.

The botched cover-up didn’t help. At the end of the General Medical Council’s case against Freeman, Simon Jackson QC painted a picture of an ambitious doctor driven to take risks – and prepared to break anti-doping rules to succeed. “There is a truism in life that it isn’t the lie that gets you, it’s the cover-up. And what a cover-up it has been,” Jackson said. It was impossible to disagree.

But, watching Freeman – who has suffered from stress and serious mental problems which delayed the case – in the dock it was hard to believe that he had acted as a lone wolf. Indeed the GMC appeared to accept this point, too, given it claimed he was working with “sleepers” in Team Sky and British Cycling who had previous knowledge of doping.

The mind is also cast back to the incident that started this grim affair – the mystery “Jiffy bag” delivered from British Cycling’s headquarters in Manchester to the Team Sky bus at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné. We still don’t know for sure what it contained, despite Sir Dave Brailsford telling parliament that it contained Fluimucil, a legal decongestant.

Strangely we never heard from Brailsford at this hearing, despite him leading both organisations in 2011. Indeed, Freeman’s QC, Mary O’Rourke, noted that Brailsford was “the spectre missing at these proceedings”. It was an evocative image, and a fair point. As she said he “would have been able to answer an awful lot of questions about what was going on at British Cycling and Team Sky. Yet he was never called.”

The tribunal also reinforced the sense that the rosy picture of marginal gains was rather different from the reality. Not only did Freeman not keep medical records, he lost or destroyed several laptops. He also claimed not to know about the benefits of testosterone – despite being one of the leading sports doctors in the country – and said he had “no knowledge” of the World Anti-Doping Code related to possessing banned substances.

Steve Peters, the head of science at British Cycling, also displayed a striking lack of curiosity in not asking why Testogel had been ordered to the velodrome, after being told about the package by the physio Phil Burt, while Shane Sutton, the head coach, spent £6,000 of British Cycling’s money on cosmetic dentistry and was accused by the tribunal of “engaging in bullying behaviour”. For supposedly Rolls-Royce organisations, British Cycling and Team Sky had more than a whiff of the Del Boy.

The tribunal made it clear in its summing up that Sutton was a credible witness and did not demand testosterone to treat erectile dysfunction. Yet during the case it heard testimony that he had doped as a rider in 1987 – something Sutton denies – while O’Rourke also suggested: “One possibility [for the Testogel] is that Sutton was getting it for nefarious purposes and had a rider he coached who wanted it.”

In a statement after the guilty verdict, Sutton stressed neither he nor Brailsford knew about the testosterone order. “I think it’s important to find out who the doctor ordered it for,” added Sutton. “Hopefully that will emerge from the investigation by UK Anti-Doping.” On that, at least, most parties will agree.

It was Sutton, of course, who provided the most shocking moment of the hearings, when he denied using Testogel for impotence. “I would have no problem in telling you it was for me,” he said. “You are telling the press I can’t get a hard-on – my wife wants to testify that you are a bloody liar.”

Frustratingly there were other interesting lines of inquiry that were not pursued. O’Rourke, for instance, revealed she had written to Damian Collins MP – the author of a damning digital, culture, media and sport select committee report into British Cycling and Team Sky – because she had “been given to believe he received a quantity of information which did not get published which related to Mr Sutton”.

She also claimed the Daily Mail had a “witness statement or affidavit” signed by Sutton. That was held in the managing editor of the newspaper’s safe as “an insurance policy against any potential claims for defamation by Sir Bradley Wiggins, Freeman or Sir Dave Brailsford”. But again, we got no further.

Despite the guilty verdict it was also hard not to feel some sympathy for Freeman, especially when he detailed how the pressure of the allegations against him had taken its toll when he met Sky chiefs in Canary Wharf in 2017. “I was on my own, living alone, isolated,” he told the tribunal. “I started drinking again, taking more sedative medication. I was on a slippery slope. I was due to give evidence to the DCMS select committee but I found it very daunting.

“I went down to see James Murdoch and Team Sky with Mr Eastwood to be briefed at an imposing building at Canary Wharf. Mike Morgan was there – who is a big person in sports law – and Rupert Murdoch’s lawyer was over from Australia. It was very tense. Pressurised. They wanted to know how I would answer certain questions. I broke down in tears and couldn’t go on.”

There was, at least, a neat bit of symmetry on Friday – as a story that began with revelations about a Jiffy bag being delivered to the Team Sky bus, ended with its former chief doctor being left under one.