As the UK and international cycling season begins to swing into action, it’s also the time that my blog articles on cycling will start to reappear (see also the Team Grumpy blog).
Some really quite sad news from the recently completed Tour of Qatar cycling stage race this week: one of the riders (Frederiek Nolf, of Team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) died in his sleep, just five days short of his 22nd birthday. The newsflash at cyclingnews.com (Belgian rider passes away in Qatar) was published on 5th February: the following stage was neutralised out of respect.
I think what must be rather harrowing for Nolf’s family at this time of grief for them is the instant internet (and other media) speculation that this is somehow related to doping. As the Science of Sport website put it:
However, a few people emailed me the story this morning with the very obvious implication that this was yet another in a long series of sudden deaths in fit and healthy athletes. In the 1990s, there was a spate of sudden deaths, at least a dozen, where fit amateur and professional cyclists died in their sleep. That negative publicity was at least part of the reason for the clamping down on EPO use, which was rampant at the time.
In fact, Science in Sport’s take is very similar to mine – we should wait and see what any investigations reveal. The (mostly anonymous) comments to that article are interesting.
Now, I’m not aware of published evidence that any of those rather anecdotally reported deaths among cyclists were indeed due to EPO abuse, or indeed to any other doping or training practises. But I think this does illustrate a consequence of the doping culture in professional sport (I don’t happen to think that cycling is any worse than other sports in this regard, incidentally – it has poorer press and better testing, at least these days, than many other equally high profile sports). This consequence is that the first thought to occur after a particularly outstanding performance, or after a tragedy such as this, is that doping is somehow involved.
For my part I find this just as disturbing as the possibility athletes are unfairly earning victories and prize money by cheating. And think of the heartache of Nolf’s family, trying to cope with their grief, to read of these accusations. For my part, at the moment I have no opinion one way or the other, and prefer to wait until the facts are known.