Blacklegs in South Africa

It all seems to have begun on the 1975 Tour of Ireland. Sean Kelly and Pat McQuaid were having a rare auld time, McQuaid winning the race overall and Kelly bagging a couple of stage wins and the mountains jersey. But at the back of McQuaid's mind were the Montreal Olympics, happening the following Summer. He and Kelly were shoo-ins for the Irish team. And McQuaid wanted to be as prepared for Montreal as he could be.

"Sean and I knew that we would be selected to ride the Olympic Road Race in August of the following year at Montreal," McQuaid explained to David Walsh a decade on, when the latter was putting together Kelly, his biography of Sean Kelly. "But we also knew that we were going to be without competition from the end of September until the early days of the following March. If we went to the Rapport Tour we would be getting valuable competition and training through the month of October."

The Rapport Toer was a major stage race taking place in South Africa, sponsored by an Afrikaans language national Sunday newspaper - along with the Department of Sport - and running from Cape Town to Johannesburg, covering about sixteen-hundred kilometres over three weeks of racing. Teams from Europe came and raced in unofficial national teams against limited local opposition.

The Toer had only started two years previously (1973) but McQuaid was able to gather some first-hand impressions of it from John Curran. The twenty-year-old Scot was also riding the 1975 Tour of Ireland and told McQuaid of his own experiences riding the previous year's Rapport (which had been won by the British Tour de France veteran Arthur Metcalfe, who by then was racing as an amateur again). Curran sold the race well to McQuaid. Even its one big drawback: upon his return, he served a six month ban for racing in South Africa.

At the time, South Africa was subject to various international sporting bans, in protest over the apartheid regime. As with other countries at the time, South Africa had rival cycling bodies, the South African Cycling Federation (SACF), which was predominantly for whites and the South African Cycling Association (SACA), which was explicitly non-racial and had a mostly coloured membership. The UCI and the IOC had recognised the rule of the SACF but by 1970 - partly because of the schism between the two South African governng bodies - that was gone and no cycling in South Africa was recognised by either the the UCI or the IOC.

The sporting sanctions against South Africa had an impact on sport in the country. The Rapport Toer itself - which was organised under the auspices of the SACF - had been created to have an explicit sanctions-busting agenda. Rugby and cricket engaged in similar deceits and confrontations. The sporting ban simply didn't stop everyone. South Africans competed abroad, international athletes travelled to South Africa to compete there. So long as everything was kept low key, the complaints were few and far between. Even when the complaints were loud, they could sometimes be weathered without too much damage.

McQuaid assessed the pros and cons of riding the Rapport Toer and decided it was worth it. Kelly agreed with him. As well as the racing miles, there was the lure of foreign travel. "I was an amateur sportsman," McQuaid told Walsh, "and I regarded travel as one of the great rewards for all the personal sacrifices. I wanted to see South Africa for myself, to find out what things were like there."

As amateurs, the riders could not be paid to race. You can break a sporting ban but the Corinthian spirit must be respected. Well, sort of. Their payment for the trip consisted of return air tickets, expenses while in the race and, after the race, the loan of a VW minibus and their hotel and petrol fees paid for as they enjoyed the delights of South Africa: the Kruger game reserve, Swaziland and the like.

Curran had indicated to McQuaid that he'd be interested in racing in South Africa again, should the opportunity present itself. McQuaid contacted the Rapport Toer organiser, Raoul de Villiers, and inquired about an invitation. De Villiers sourced sponsorship from a deodorant company and McQuaid, Kelly and Curran - along with McQuaid's brother Kieron (who had already represented Ireland at the 1972 Munich Olympics) and another Scot, Henry Wilbraham - were officially the Mum For Men team.

At the time of the Rapport Tour, Kelly was nineteen, McQuaid six years his senior. A member of one of the ruling clans of Irish cycling - the McQuaids, the Kimmages, the McCormacks - McQuaid had graduated from Strawberry Hill College in London in 1973 as an Instructor in Physical Education and was already married. Kelly was living on his parents' farm and filling his time between bike races as a brick-layer.

In Walsh's book, the author talks of the subterfuge with which the three Irish riders made their way first to London and then onward to South Africa via Paris and the Congo. Both families - the McQuaids and the Kellys - knew what their sons were planning and supported them in their endeavour. Dan Grant - Kelly's future brother-in-law - helped in the logistics of the trip.

At the end of September, he drove Kelly to a race in Enniscorthy. "I had Sean's luggage for South Africa in the boot of my car," he later told Walsh, "and it had to be transferred to Jim McQuaid's car [Jim was the father of Pat and Kieron]. We couldn't do this at the start or the finish of the race as there were too many people around. Eventually we drove some way out of the town and transferred bags on a quiet part of the road." There's something almost familiar about that story, though the contents of the bags changed.

The Mum For Men boys had a pretty good Rapport Toer. It would have been a lot better if only Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hadn't also been in South Africa at the time, enjoying a second honeymoon after their second marriage, which had taken place in the Chobe National Park in Botswana a few days earlier. If and only.

It was in the town of Oudtshoorn where McQuaid and Kelly crossed the path of Taylor and Burton. Among the media entourage following the happy second-honeymooners was John Hartdegen, representing the British newspaper, the Daily Mail. When Hartdegen saw there was a bike race passing through Oudtshoorn he looked at the list of riders and was happy to discover there was a British team in the race. Even better, the British riders were actually doing quite well. Getting a photograph of them with Taylor and Burton would make a change from the normal shot of the happy couple in front of this, that or the other tourist attraction.

When Hartdegen put the idea to the British team's manager, Tommy Shardelow, he was surprised to discover that Shardelow was somewhat reluctant to allow any of his riders to be photographed. Whether he smelled a story or was just reared on the Fleet Street principle of never taking no for an answer, Hartdegen pressed his point. Eventually Shardelow caved. Five riders clad in the team's tracksuit tops were presented for Hartdegen to photograph. As Hartdegen later reported in the Mail, this was when he really smelled a rat: "I pointed out to Shardelow that two of the men I had photographed spoke with pronounced South African accents, and that a third was a member of another foreign team." He confronted Shardelow. Who decided that honesty was the best policy, in the hope that he could convince Hartdegen to bury the story he was about to be presented with.

Yes, Shardelow admitted, the riders presented for the team photograph were not the real riders. Worse, the names listed in the race programme weren't their real names. All the journalists covering the race, Shardelow explained, were aware of the subterfuge. He appealed to Hartdegen: "These men are sportsmen, not politicians. They don't give a damn for apartheid. They just want to take part in one of the finest long-distance cycling races in the world today. If that story is printed in London they will be banned and that will be goodbye to their chances of taking part in the next Olympic Games."

Hartdegen didn't care about anyone's Olympic dreams. He had a story that was too good to sit on. The Olympics only added to the attraction of the story. If the riders were good enough to possibly represent their country they were worth writing about. All Hartdegen needed before he could file a story were the identities of the riders concerned. So he popped along to the start of the next stage, fired off a few photos, sent the film back to London and hoped there'd be someone there who'd be able to put names to faces.

The names came back. Shardelow's riders - J Burns, G Main, D Nixon, P Nugent and A Owen - were really John Curran, Sean Kelly, Kieron McQuaid, Pat McQuaid and Henry Wilbraham. The so-called British team of Mum For Men was really made up of two Scots and three Irishmen. Now Hartdegen really had a story Mail readers would like.

The Thursday October 16th 1975 edition of the Daily Mail carried a full page story that probably had a few Mail readers harrumphing over their cornflakes. "Sportsmail Reveals The International Ghost Riders," ran the main headline. The story revealed that a Mail journalist, in South Africa to cover the second honeymoon of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, had come across a story of sporting subterfuge set to shock. By breaking the international sporting ban on competing in South Africa? No. By pretending to be British. As the subhead of the story out it: "The Secret Team Who Masquerade As Britain."

By the time the race ended, Kelly and the McQuaids knew what they were returning to in Ireland. The Mail story had been picked up in Dublin by the Evening Press and the Irish cycling authorities couldn't pretend to be unaware of it. McQuaid believed that a six month ban would be the worst of it, as he explained subsequently to Walsh: "I expected that they [the Irish Cycling Federation] would be hard on us. Going to South Africa was even then considered a major crime in cycling. But, deep down, I thought we were too good for them to fuck us out."

The Irish Cycling Federation handed them each a seven month ban from competition. On appeal, that was reduced to six months, allowing the trio to return to competition by the end of April 1976. Hardly a ban that was likely to hurt. They missed no more than seven or eight weeks of racing at the start of the 1976 season. Both McQuaid and Kelly felt that would be no hindrance to their Olympic dreams.

But barely a month after they had returned to competition those dreams were shattered. The UCI - through its amateur arm, the FIAC - compiled a list of the real identities of as many of the Rapport Toer riders as it could identify. That file was passed to the IOC who, with the Montreal Games looming, passed swift - and harsh - judgement. On May 29th 1976 sixteen riders from seven countries were identified and handed lifetime bans from Olympic competition. Kelly and McQuaid were among them.

Kelly has always maintained that he was heartbroken by the Olympic ban. At the time, he had no dreams of being a pro cyclist and the Olympics were the pinnacle of his ambition. McQuaid though regretted nothing, telling Walsh: "I would say it was the best month of my life. The weather was great, the countryside beautiful, my form was at its best and the time we spent touring the countryside afterwards was superb. It was a great trip." His own performances in South Africa were, he felt, among the best of his career. Masquerading as J Burns, he won two bunch sprints and believed he had justified the faith of the race organiser, Raoul de Villiers, in inviting he and his colleagues to race in South Africa. As well as McQuaid's own good form, Kelly - masquerading as Alan Owen - had been in the top ten throughout the race, finally finishing eight.

Banned from the Olympics, Kelly spent the Summer and early Autumn of 1976 in France, riding for VC Metz. He rode and won the amateur edition of the Giro di Lombardia and came to the attention of directeurs sportifs like Cyrille Guimard and Jean de Gribaldy. De Gri got to Kelly first and the rest, well the rest you know.

McQuaid, he rode on as an amateur but eventually turned to the organisation side of the sport, first becoming a board member of the Irish Cycling Federation in 1985 and then its president in 1994. He held that gig until 1998, after which he moved on the UCI, where he became president in 2005. Earlier this year, he became a member of the International Olympic Committee. He may be banned from ever competing in the Olympics, but that's no impediment to him helping to run the Games.

* * * * *

Much of the above is based on Kelly, David Walsh's biography of Sean Kelly.

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