Dr Richard Freeman, the doctor at the centre of the Team Sky Jiffy bag controversy, has told the Jess Varnish employment tribunal that cyclists on British Cycling’s podium programme were “very firmly controlled” by coaches. Varnish, who was dropped from the national squad in April 2016 and claims she was unfairly discriminated against, is seeking to establish that she was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport when she received funding, rather than being an independent contractor.
Freeman had been due to testify on behalf of Varnish in person, but is due to face a General Medical Council (GMC) tribunal in February regarding testosterone patches delivered to the National Cycling Centre in 2011. After hearing that representatives of the GMC planned to attend the tribunal, he decided not to appear on the advice of his lawyers.
The BBC reports that Judge Ross did however accept a written statement.
"The control by the coaches over the athletes was complete – cycling is a coach-led sport," wrote Freeman. "The coach would decide everything. The athletes were very firmly controlled."
He went on to say that "non-compliance was not acceptable" because coaches decided whether or not riders stayed on the programme.
“Such matters were supposedly decided by reference to the selection criteria but these were so vague as to be like ‘scotch mist’ … The coaches held such power over an athlete’s selection for competitions that they assumed – rightly in the vast majority of cases – that what they said went – in all circumstances, always.”
British Cycling's lawyer Thomas Linden QC, who had previously noted that Freeman “had form for pulling out" – a reference to his non-appearance before a House of Commons select committee on health grounds last year – highlighted that the evidence was unsigned and said it could give Freeman "plausible deniability" if he were to change his view.
Judge Ross stated that employment tribunals were "less formal" than courts, but said she would give Freeman’s words "very little weight" in her deliberations.
British Cycling head coach Iain Dyer and programme director Andy Harrison were then questioned by Varnish's barrister, David Reade QC, on the level of control British Cycling had over athletes in terms of training, free time, what they wore and personal sponsorship deals.
Earlier this week, Varnish’s partner Liam Phillips, the former BMX world champion, claimed that coaches were “jealous” of the earning power of cyclists after the Beijing 2008 Olympics and had sometimes blocked riders’ sponsorship opportunities.
A verdict is expected on Monday.