4 September 2020

Dr. Freeman trial: the continuing search for the elusive truth

Did British Cycling and Team Sky use therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) and medications in order to improve performance? The Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee of the UK Parliament ‘believes’ so. This ‘belief’, protected by Parliamentary Privilege from legal recourse, has led many into assuming that Sir Bradley Wiggins is the British version of Lance Armstrong, and British Cycling and Team Sky are the UK version of the US Postal Team. 

One of the conclusions of its 2018 Combating Doping in Sport Report was that the CMS Committee ‘believed’ that Team Sky used triamcinolone to prepare Wiggins for the Tour de France, and the purpose of this treatment was not medical, but to improve his power to weight ratio ahead of the race. Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins strongly refute this suggestion.

This ‘belief’ was based on the testimony of a single anonymous witness, who provided the CMS Committee (as the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee was then called) with evidence alleging that British Cycling and Team Sky used TUEs for performance gains. As that evidence is confidential, it has not been seen by Wiggins or Team Sky. 

A key person regarding medical treatment administered to cyclists by British Cycling and Team Sky at the time is Dr. Richard Freeman. He has already admitted 18 of 22 misconduct charges against him during previous hearings of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS). On 5/6 October, the MPTS is scheduled to hear evidence regarding the remaining misconduct charges.

A key area of dispute is whether Dr. Freeman was acting on his own initiative, or whether he was carrying out orders from British Cycling and Team Sky staff. It is understood that Dr. Freeman argues he was pressured into his actions. A key part of that defence involves the alleged content of an affidavit signed by Shane Sutton, former Technical Director at British Cycling, held in a safe at the Daily Mail offices.

Shane Sutton’s affidavit

Shane Sutton…

It is understood that Sutton was a source for a series of Daily Mail articles centred around the delivery of a medical package (or ‘jiffy bag’) to Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2011. The affidavit is understood to be the newspaper’s insurance policy against any future defamation claims by Wiggins, Dr. Freeman or Sir Dave Brailsford, former Performance Director of British Cycling and Team Sky.

Mary O’Rourke, representing Dr. Freeman, previously asked the General Medical Council (GMC) to use a freedom of information request under Section 35a of the 1983 Medical Act in an attempt to access the affidavit. However, it is understood that the GMC didn’t back her application (see Twitter thread below). 

The defence team for Dr. Freeman has claimed it has a ‘journalistic source’ regarding Sutton’s affidavit. They have previously argued that the affidavit contradicts evidence given by Sutton to a 2016 hearing of the CMS Committee. 

Yesterday, the MPTS requested that O’Rourke supply a ‘redacted copy’ of the journalistic ‘source’ by 11 September. It is understood that the journalist concerned has been asked to participate in proceedings, but has so far refused.

At the 2016 CMS hearing, Sutton and Brailsford asserted that the coaching team were led by the medical team when it came to administering treatment to British Cycling and Team Sky riders. This assertion was challenged by a ‘Sky Insider’, who in April 2017 provided a written statement (PDF below) used in the 2018 Combating Doping in Sport Report that disputed assertions made by Brailsford and Sutton. 

‘In 2012 The team was under extreme pressure to perform Dave B and Shane Sutton put a great deal of pressure on the medical team in particular Richard Freeman to provide more proactive medical support’, it reads. ‘At that time the culture was if Shane told people to do something you just did it. At the committee interview Shane hid behind trusting the medical team this is utter nonsense he directed the medical team he constantly bullied Richard Freeman’.

In its March 2018 Combating Doping in Sport Report (PDF below), the CMS Committee stated that it ‘believed’ allegations that British Cycling and Team Sky had abused the TUE system in order to improve the performance of key athletes. Sutton, who was Sir Bradley Wiggins’ coach at the time, told the CMS Committee that the coaching staff were led by the medical team and that at the time, it was common for athletes to use TUEs to “find gains”. As detailed above, the April 2017 statement provided by the ‘Sky insider’ contradicts the first part of this assertion.

The CMS Committee’s ‘belief’ was that TUEs were being abused was due to evidence provided by another anonymous witness ‘who held a senior position at Team Sky at the time of events under investigation’. That source also provided the CMS Committee with ‘confidential material’ regarding the medicines policy at Team Sky during the period covered by Wiggins’s TUE certificates for use of triamcinolone during competition periods. Allegations regarding use of Testogel emerged later.

The anonymous witness told the CMS Committee that Wiggins and a smaller group of riders were training separately from the rest of the team and were using corticosteroids to ‘lean down’ in preparation for races. As the whistleblower’s full evidence is confidential, it has not been seen by Wiggins or Team Sky, who have not had the chance to reply.

MPTS proceedings

Dr. Freeman has admitted 18 of the 22 charges against him. He admitted ordering 30 sachets of Testogel from Fit4Sport Limited on 16 May 2011. He admitted falsely denying having made the order and falsely claiming that it had been made in error. He also admitted pressuring Fit4Sport into falsifying an email exchange to state that the order had been made in error, and falsely claiming that the Testogel had been returned to the company and destroyed.

In an interview with UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) on 17 February 2017, Dr. Freeman said that the Testogel had been ordered for a non-athlete member of staff. It has yet to be determined if this is a false claim. Dr. Freeman denies intentionally placing the order for an athlete to cheat, claiming that Sutton bullied him into ordering it to treat erectile dysfunction. 

The prosecution claim that Sutton’s medical records don’t support the claim that Dr. Freeman’s order was to treat erectile dysfunction. Sutton stormed out of a MPTS hearing in November last year, after denying ordering Testogel and arguing there was no evidence that he had injected testosterone.

He denied that the Testogel was ordered for him to treat erectile dysfunction and denied ordering it himself. However, he did not appear to conclusively deny that it was ordered for him. 

“I would have no problem in telling you it was for me”, The Guardian reported him as saying. “You are telling the press I can’t get a hard on – my wife wants to testify that you are a bloody liar […] I was asked to come here and answer whether I ordered Testogel. I did not.”

After leaving the hearing early, reporters asked Sutton about whether it was accurate that he had injected testosterone whilst competing in the 1990s, as an anonymous witness had claimed. “As I said in there, where’s the evidence?” he said. 

It is understood that this same anonymous witness also gave evidence to the CMS Committee for the 2018 Combating Doping in Sport Report. O’Rourke said that the witness had provided his name and details to UK Sport, UKAD and Damian Collins, who at that time chaired the CMS Committee. When Sutton hazarded a guess at who it was, O’Rourke told him he had named the wrong man.

Dr. Freeman has already admitted to the MPTS hearing that he treated non-athlete members of staff without access to their medical records. As such, Sutton may have instructed Dr. Freeman to order Testogel by claiming erectile dysfunction without it being mentioned in his medical records. 

The MPTS has already proven that 30 sachets of Testogel were ordered and not returned to the supply company and destroyed, as Dr. Freeman initially claimed. However, without adequate medical records, proving where that Testogel ended up and how it was used may prove problematic. 

Dr. Freeman has also admitted failing to keep adequate records, instead using ‘a number of different laptops’ when he did keep records of treatment administered. The MPTS has already proven that on the evening of 27/28 August 2014, a British Cycling laptop containing the records of ‘a professional cyclist’ was stolen from Dr. Freeman, who had failed to back these records up. The 2018 Combating Doping in Sport Report confirms that Wiggins was that ‘professional cyclist’. 

Sutton has faced separate allegations regarding his conduct towards other staff members. It is understood that other submissions relating to Sutton were due to be published by the CMS Committee alongside its Combating Doping in Sport Report, and these cast doubt on his credibility as a witness. They were withdrawn at the last moment due to the circumstances of the people making those submissions and have never been published, despite promises to do so. 

Parliamentary privilege

Details of the GRU agents indicted by the DoJ for their involvement in ‘Fancy Bears’…

The Combating Doping in Sport Report was spurred by three developments. The first involved revelations by illegal hacking group Fancy Bears regarding a TUE held by Wiggins for use of triamcinolone and other medications in order to combat asthma. The second was evidence that British Cycling had spent £1,263.90 to send Women’s Road Coach Simon Cope to France for one day to deliver a package to Wiggins at the end of the 2011 Critérium du Dauphine. The third allegation was that British Cycling and Team Sky were abusing the TUE system for performance gain purposes.

Fancy Bears were Russian State agents, and the US Department of Justice (DoJ) concluded that the purpose of its illegal hacks into anti-doping systems was retaliation for sanctions levied on Russian sport for the State’s manipulation of the anti-doping system. In other words, its aim was to cast doubt on the sporting performance of athletes from other countries. In Wiggins case, it apparently succeeded.

Wiggins had a TUE to use triamcinolone – a corticosteroid – in competition, and no TUE is required to use it out of competition. UK Anti-Doping’s (UKAD) evidence summary states that the package was delivered to Dr. Richard Freeman on 12 June 2011, and Wiggins recalled being treated with fluimucil on the evening of 12 June. The Critérium du Dauphiné had finished that day. As such, even if the package did contain triamcinolone and not fluimucil, there may be no case to answer.

Dr. Richard Freeman’s book…

There are questions about why it was necessary to fly Cope over to France for one day to deliver the package. However in his book, Dr. Freeman refers to the case of Alain Baxter, who in 2002 was stripped of a bronze medal after testing positive for methamphetamine due to a Vicks inhaler bought in the US.

‘The Alain Baxter effect is the reason that any restocking of medicines always comes from the medical facility in Manchester rather than being bought locally at a race’, he argues in his book, The Line (p74). ‘Need I say that new stock is often delivered in Jiffy bags?’

The allegation that British Cycling and Team Sky were abusing the TUE system for performance gains comes from the single anonymous witness who provided evidence to the CMS Committee in 2016. The significance of Sutton’s affidavit is that it is understood to contradict evidence he gave to the CMS Committee. That evidence is similar to that given by the single anonymous witness to the CMS Committee in 2016, upon which the CMS Committee based the conclusions of its Combating Doping in Sport Report.

Sutton’s evidence was that the medical team directed substances administered to riders, and that it was common for athletes to use TUEs to “find gains”. The single anonymous witness told the CMS Committee that a small group of riders were training separately from the rest of the team and were using corticosteroids to ‘lean down’ in preparation for races. This source also told the CMS Committee that Wiggins was using corticosteroids beyond the requirement for a TUE.

As nobody other than those involved in the case has seen Sutton’s affidavit, how it ‘contradicts’ the evidence he gave to the CMS Committee in 2016 is unknown. It remains to be seen whether a third party account of an unseen affidavit can be used as evidence in the MPTS hearing. As such, even if Dr. Freeman’s defence is successful in obtaining a redacted copy of its ‘journalistic source’, the truth about British Cycling and Team Sky’s use of TUEs and medications may remain elusive.

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