POSTED: December 21st 2016

JOHN GOODBODY: Did Tommy Simpson die in vain?

Tommy Simpson's memorial on Mont Ventoux © Getty Images
Tommy Simpson's memorial on Mont Ventoux © Getty Images

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) The Tour de France is one of the most celebrated sports events in the world. Next year will see the 50th anniversary of the death during the event of Tommy Simpson, a British cyclist, who was trying to add victory in the event to his world road race title two years earlier. Simpson collapsed on Mont Ventoux, the notoriously demanding climb, known as "the Giant of Provence."

The autopsy revealed that he had taken amphetamines, which together with his illness, the extreme heat and the exhausting nature of the event, probably contributed to his death. As a result, from 1968, mandatory drugs tests were brought in for major cycling races. A leading French cycling official said at the time that such a move encouraged him to hope that Simpson "would not have died in vain."

One thought of those words this week, when attending a British Parliament inquiry into combatting doping in sport, notably into cycling. Over the last 50 years, we have heard, time and again, the need for cycling to tackle the problem. We heard it in 1978, when Belgian Michel Pollentier was stripped of the leadership of the race because he allegedly tried to substitute untainted urine for his own. We heard it in 1998 in the Festina scandal, which directly led to the setting up of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and we heard it in 2012, when Lance Armstrong was finally unmasked as having cheated repeatedly during his long career. And we have heard it many times in between those dates.

The latest controversy has broken following the revelation by the Russian 'Fancy Bears' hackers that Sir Bradley Wiggins, who in 2012 became the first Briton to win the Tour, had injections just before three major events for triamcinolone acetonide to treat pollen allergies. For this he had therapeutic use exemptions (Tues), signed off medically both by doctors and the International Cycling Union (UCI), so technically they were permissible.

 However, what has been questioned is why, given his well-known propensity for asthma, he didn't have these injections on other occasions, only before two Tours de France and one Giro d'Italia. And some cyclists believe the drug in fact aids performance although this is not proven scientifically and the use of which remains allowable in certain conditions. Wiggins has not given evidence to the Committee of the British Parliament but this week, Sir Dave Brailsford, who heads up Team Sky, for whom Wiggins rode in those years, did.

British Members of Parliament, journalists and sports officials are now examining how Brailsford defended his riders and the reputation of his team, which has always prided itself, in the post- Armstrong era, of behaving absolutely ethically, of setting new standards for the sport. Sky insists it has done nothing wrong.

It is sad for another Briton, Chris Froome, formerly Wiggins' team-mate and this year's winner of the Tour, when representing Sky, that this controversy should have arisen. But it is also sad for the sport.

Once again, it seems to be under a cloud, with suspicions raised, questions asked and fingers pointed, however disputed the evidence, more details of which will be revealed in the weeks to come. Cycling (like any other sport) cannot afford to have performances queried, especially when it involves such signature events as the Tour de France.

The UCI, under its president, Brian Cookson, is striving manfully to steer the sport into a more transparent and morally acceptable era, following the era of Armstrong.  However, when the New Year dawns and their officials look back over the last 50 years, they must be worried how many years have passed but many of the same problems remain. And they must ask themselves: did Tommy Simpson die in vain?

** JOHN GOODBODY will cover the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.

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