July 21, 2010 8 Comments
An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …
Sometimes professional sportsmen and women do their job too well. They make it look so effortless that it underplays the scale of their achievements and the dedication required to reach the peak of their powers.
For all its benefits in making sport more accessible to the viewing public, television is something of a double-edged sword. Great achievement becomes commonplace. Brief highlights don’t do justice to a batsman who has batted all day to score a century. You don’t appreciate just how fast Formula 1 cars go round corners. Television allows us to see more, but in some crucial ways we also see less.
But every now and then sport lays bare just how far its participants are willing to push themselves to the very limits of human endurance – and sometimes beyond.
Tour de France, July 1967
Unless you’re a student of cycling history, you have probably never heard of Tom Simpson. And yet he was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Sportswriters’ Personality of the Year and Daily Express Sportsman of the Year in 1965 ahead of such luminaries as Bobby Charlton and Henry Cooper.
And rightly so, for Simpson was a trailblazer. He won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics aged 18, to which he added a silver at the Commonwealth Games two years later. He then became the first Englishman to break into the closed shop of professional cycling in continental Europe, racing to fourth place on his World Road Race Championship debut in 1960.
The highlight of his career came in 1965, when he became the first British rider to win the World Championship. This was a remarkable achievement, even more so considering he had fallen in that year’s Tour de France and raced on against doctor’s orders for several days before finally abandoning, shattered, with an arm so badly injured it almost had to be amputated. Tom Simpson epitomised the British ‘stiff upper lip’ with his refusal to admit defeat. It was an admirable trait. Unfortunately, it would also cost him his life.
Despite his many successes on the circuit, the Tour de France was the one Tom Simpson longed to win above all others.
On stage 12 of the 1962 race, he became the first Brit to wear the coveted yellow jersey, after which he said:
My lucky number is 13. My daughter was born on Friday the 13th, my wife also. Perhaps Friday, stage 13, will be lucky too.
It wasn’t. Simpson relinquished the yellow jersey after just one day. He would never wear it again.
Simpson slipped back to sixth that year – still a huge achievement, the highest finish ever by a British rider at the time (and since bettered only by fourth places for Robert Millar in 1984 and Bradley Wiggins last year). Subsequent years, however, were less successful, with only one finish in the next four years, fourteenth in 1964.
However, the 1967 Tour was more promising. Simpson was in good form, having won Paris-Nice and placed well in other races. After twelve stages, he was lying seventh and optimistic of further progress.
The 13th stage on the 13th day of July was the climb up Mont Ventoux, perhaps the single most challenging peak on the Tour itinerary. An excruciatingly slow and soul-destroying 22 kilometre climb to a peak of 1,912 metres, in those days the ascent was made during the hottest part of the afternoon, with roadside temperatures in excess of 50°C.
From the early stages of the climb, it was clear Simpson was in difficulties. Never the best of climbers, he was unable to keep pace with the leaders as he wobbled unsteadily in pursuit, heat and exhaustion clearly getting the better of him.
Photographs of Simpson on the way up Ventoux clearly foreshadow what was to come. The heart was still beating, the legs still pedalling, but the pallid, ghostly face and the cold, blank eyes betrayed the truth – Tom Simpson was dead already.
About three kilometres from the summit, Simpson fell, having reached the limit of his endurance. He urged spectators to help him back onto his bike, and struggled on for a few hundred metres before falling again into the boulders by the side of the road. This time he did not get up.
His mechanic, Harry Hall, was first on the scene, closely followed by Tour doctor Pierre Dumas. Their repeated attempts to revive the stricken cyclist via mouth-to-mouth and cardiac massage were in vain, and Tom Simpson was officially pronounced dead at Avignon Hosptial later that afternoon. He was 29.
The terrible truth behind Simpson’s death soon began to unfold. Post-mortem investigations revealed he had been the beneficiary of ‘scientific training’ (to use one of the euphemisms of the time). His bloodstream contained traces of amphetamines, three vials (two empty, one containing further pills) were found in the pockets of his race jersey, and a subsequent search of his luggage uncovered further supplies. There was no doubt he had been using drugs to augment his performance.
Although the autopsy reported the official cause of death as dehydration, lack of oxygen and overexhaustion, it was clear Simpson had charged himself up with amphetamines to help him ride harder for longer, as a result of which his body simply did not know when to stop.
As a final footnote, compatriot Barry Hoban was allowed to win the following day’s stage unopposed as a mark of respect by the peloton for a fallen comrade. Tom Simpson’s widow, Helen, is now Helen Hoban.
The Tour remains a dangerous – occasionally fatal – event. As recently as 1995, Fabio Casartelli (a Motorola teammate of a young Lance Armstrong) died from head injuries sustained in a fall on the descent from the Col de Portet d’Aspet. However, Tom Simpson remains the only rider to die because the physical punishment he endured exceeded what his body was capable of handling.
Sadly, Simpson’s name has, to many people, become lost in the mists of time, although it is ironic that he is perhaps better remembered on the continent (where fans affectionately referred to him as ‘Mr Tom’) than in Britain. Today, a small granite memorial by the side of the road marks the spot where he died along with his dreams of winning the Tour de France, a shrine that is lovingly observed by cycling fans of all nations whenever the Tour passes by. A second memorial was built in the Nottinghamshire town of Harworth, where he lived and is now buried.
Tom Simpson was an extreme and tragic example of the risks sportsmen are willing to take when body, mind and spirit alone aren’t enough. His story is a reminder that sport is never easy; on the contrary, the better you are, the harder it is. Sportsmen will do whatever it takes to find that little bit extra – occasionally by illicit means, but usually through years of sacrifice and hard work. That is something to admire about all competitors, no matter how easy they make it look when we watch them. We should never forget that.
For me, the tragic death of Tom Simpson is one of the single biggest defining moments in sport. Why? Well, you have to consider it as an early link in the chain of events that leads us via the systematic programmes of the Eastern Bloc countries in the 70s and 80s, and sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, to a sporting world today where any extraordinary performance is immediately regarded with the utmost suspicion.
Simpson’s death changed the public’s view of cycling forever by exposing the culture of widespread drug use long before it became an issue in other sports. It forced the Tour to introduce testing procedures, and the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling has never disappeared since; indeed, a number of drug-related scandals in recent years have periodically threatened to destroy the credibility of this most demanding of sports.
It is a situation where the authorities in many sports have historically turned a blind eye to even the possibility of performance-enhancing substances, only to have to hastily introduce testing procedures when someone is exposed. Despite already having rudimentary processes in place, Ben Johnson was not caught until after he had been presented with Olympic gold, despite having produced similarly eye-popping performances for more than a year. Marion Jones too. And the late Florence Griffith-Joyner was never caught, despite setting records which have never come close to being broken in 22 years since.
Simpson was one of the very first professional sportsmen to be exposed for drug use. In some ways, we have a lot to thank him for. But the exposure of sport’s dark underbelly means that we will never look at great athletic achievement with trusting, innocent eyes again. If that isn’t a defining moment, I don’t know what is.
(For more on the story of Tom Simpson, I would recommend the book Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson by William Fotheringham.)
‘Defining moments’ is a series of blogs looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much. For more entries in this series, click here.