LIFE BEYOND THE LINE
Drawing a line under his time working as Team Sky doctor, Richard Freeman talks to David Fearnhead about his gripping new book, The Line, which takes readers deep within the turbulent world of sports medicine
Wednesday 27th October 2004 was a cold and drizzly evening at the Reebok Stadium as Bolton Wanderers prepared to take on Tottenham in the League Cup.
It was an evening like so many others for Bolton’s chief medic and Ribble Valley resident, Dr Richard Freeman. Yet all that was about to change.
News reached him in the medical room that something was seriously wrong with their Senegal international midfielder Khalilou Fadiga. The player had collapsed on the pitch during their pre-match warm-up.
Fadiga had undergone surgery in May to correct an abnormal heart. He’d been cleared to play by a heart specialist and in the months following had shown no signs of any problem.
“When I got to him he was conscious. Out there in the middle of the football pitch is a vulnerable place so we quickly got him on a stretcher and back to the medical room,” he recalls.
Fadiga had suffered a heart attack.
“It was unusual as he had ventricular tachycardia, which is a very rapid but still functioning cardiac output. So he was still conscious but in a very dangerous cardiac rhythm. If it went into ventricular fibrillation it’s harder to resuscitate someone from that, so I made the decision to shock him whilst still conscious.”
It was a brave call. Neither of the paramedics nor the doctor had past experience of shocking a conscious patient – albeit at a lower amount of energy. “We were all out of our comfort zone.”
It’s here, where Dr Freeman’s commitment to constantly furthering his sports knowledge, likely saved Fadiga’s life. Having earlier sought out the advice of Professor Pedro Brugada, one of the most eminent sports cardiologists in the world, he now found himself making use of that newly acquired information.
In his new book, The Line – Where Medicine and Sport Collide, he writes of the incident: ‘Fadiga looked at me. He was conscious. I tried not to think of defibrillating a conscious patient. ‘Stand clear!’ I delivered the charge, waited, praying for what is known as the sinus rhythm. Got it!’
Dr Freeman, says: “It worked and he flashed that big smile at me that he was famous for. It was a great smile.”
Others players were not so lucky. On the very same night Brazilian defender, Serginho, died after suffering a heart attack and collapsing on the pitch during a Brazilian championship match between Sao Caetano and Sao Paulo.
Dr Freeman says he’s since spoken with the parents of Dan Bagshaw, who set up the charity Dan’s Trust after the former Clitheroe Royal Grammar School student tragically lost his life in 2012, whilst competing in a Triathlon in Hong Kong due to an undiagnosed heart condition.
“I think it’s important that anyone involved in sport and anyone who has got a child aged 14 or over should seriously consider having them screened for any cardiac anomaly,” says Dr Freeman.
The Fadiga incident is just one story in a book which is rich in both authenticity and detail. Dr Freeman proves a likeable narrator whose passion for his profession burns through every page.
Aside from football, he also worked with Europe’s Ryder Cup winning team of 2002, but it’s his time with British Cycling and Team Sky which dominates the book. He was present during a quite remarkable rise which continues today.
Seven of the last eight winners of the Tour de France have been from Team Sky. When added together with the phenomenal success of British cyclists at the Olympics, it was perhaps inevitable that in this post-Armstrong toxicity, fingers would be pointed. Whilst those with knighthoods have been relatively insulated, the man who had to bear the brunt of the subsequent media firestorm was their former team doctor.
A two-year investigation by UK Anti-doping closed in November 2017 ruling no charges would be brought against anyone involved due to the lack of contemporaneous evidence.
When he was first recruited by Sir Dave Brailsford he recalls being sold the dream. Brailsford told him he wanted to win the Tour de France within five years and win it clean: “He said he’d never ask me to cross the line, and he never did,” says Dr Freeman.
Many, including the publishers, thought this was The Line referenced in the title of his book. For Dr Freeman the line was one to be drawn under the affair and move on. Whether he will be able to, depends on others who appear intent on pursuing Team Sky.
“There was a lot of malicious allegations which were very difficult to defend. I didn’t respond to any of the comments because I went through a period of ill-health. I didn’t want to do multiple interviews or get into a social media debate. Trial by social media is a modern phenomenon, it’s vicious and anonymous.”
He says he understands why the French, in particular, have been so anti Team Sky: “The Tour de France was their crown jewels. First of all the Americans came and took it with Lance Armstrong and he did massive damage to cycling because of what he did and what he admitted to. Then they thought it was their chance to get back winning it, but Sir Dave Brailsford came along and then dominated it. Obviously that causes tension because it is a very competitive sport.”
Armstrong never recorded a positive test for doping. He was only brought down by whistleblowers. It’s perhaps for this reason that any grudge born by a rival team or former team member now carries weight, even without a positive doping result or proven evidence of doping.
However, Dr Freeman believes the environment today is very different from the one in which Armstrong operated. Changes brought in by the governing body’s former Chairman –another Ribble Valley resident – Brian Cookson, have made cycling the most tested sport in the world.
“Every cyclist has to give a one hour slot per day to be tested and can still be tested outside that slot. The winner is always tested. Analytics have become so much stronger since Armstrong. Samples are stored for eight years and can be looked at again. I think it’s very necessary to protect the integrity of sport and the health of athletes. Performance enhancing drugs often have serious side effects. My duty was always as a doctor to my patient, not to the team.”
In pinpointing his own reasons for Britain’s remarkable success in cycling he draws on a football analogy, comparing the transformation of Chelsea with Roman Abramovich’s money to the funding British Cycling received, most notably with Team Sky.
“Without the good riders though it’s just wasted money. Britain for whatever reason produced an exceptional crop of riders. Most of them came through the academy, which was run by Rod Ellingworth in Italy. Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy, Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas – they all came through that academy system and most of them were Olympic medallists, and mostly Olympic gold medallists.”
“Geraint Thomas winning the Tour de France this year is a breath of fresh air. He’s the hard man of cycling. A very low maintenance rider, he doesn’t even take paracetamol!”
Having left Team Sky Dr Freeman will now be going back to where he began, as a General Practitioner.
“The NHS is extremely short of GPs, especially in East Lancashire. They provide an essential role in the way the NHS works. Medicine is a way of life, and it really is a privilege being a doctor. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
The Line – Where Medicine and Sport Collide by Richard Freeman is published by Headline and is available at: www.amazon.co.uk