By Graham Healy
In 1973, a TV programme debuted on ABC in the US which featured top athletes competing in various different sports, other than their own. The show was called Superstars and would soon have World, International, European and British versions.
Over the years, a number of cyclists appeared on the show including Jean-Pierre Danguillaume, Walter Godefroot, Freddy Maertens, Hennie Kuiper, Giuseppe Martinelli, Hugh Porter and Ole Ritter. In later years, when the programme made a brief comeback, Chris Boardman and Lizzie Armitstead also made appearances.
Another top rider who featured on the show was Tour de France and World Championship winner Joop Zoetemelk. In fact, the Dutchman competed twice.
Zoetemelk had an incredible career. He won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1968 in Mexico City in the 100 kilometre road team time trial. He turned professional the following year and rode his first Tour de France in 1970. He would go on to complete the race a record sixteen times.
He finished second in the Tour six times, before finally winning the race in 1980. Five years later at the age of 38, he became the oldest winner of the World Championship road race.
Zoetemelk’s first appearance on Superstars was in 1975 when he took part in the Belgian round of the European series. Amongst those he was competing against were racing driver Jody Scheckter, footballer Paul Van Himst and fellow cyclist Freddy Maertens.
The Dutch cyclist didn’t set the world alight. He came last in the 100 metres with a time of 16.1 seconds, a full second behind Maertens in fifth and Zoetemelk was beaten by Van Himst at tennis.
However, he did well at pistol shooting where he placed second and rowing where he finished in third place. Neither Maertens nor Zoetemelk could compete in the bike race, so there were no points to be gained there.
As might have been expected, the two cyclists performed terribly in the weightlifting with Zoetemelk finishing in last and at the 50 metre swimming race, Maertens and Zoetemelk finished second last and last respectively.
Zoetemelk performed a little better than Maertens overall finishing two places ahead of the Belgian who was dead last as French 110-metre hurdler Guy Drut won overall. It was Maertens’ one and only appearance in Superstars.
Five years later, Zoetemelk was invited again to take part – this time in the International series. Amongst the big names he would compete against this time were British judoka Brian Jacks and Irish rugby player Tony Ward.
Jacks had a phenomenal record at Superstars, setting records for various gym tests including 100 parallel bar dips in 60 seconds in the 1981 Challenge of the Champions, and 118 squat thrusts in the 1980 World Final.
Ward played rugby as a fly-half for Munster, Leinster, Ireland, the British and Irish Lions and the Barbarians and in 1979 he was selected as European rugby player of the year. He also played football for Shamrock Rovers and Limerick United.
The competitions would take place in November 1979 in Natanya, Israel with the show being aired the following year. There were eight events in total, with each competitor choosing six.
Zoetemelk once again came last in the 100m sprint, with Dutch hockey player, Ties Kruise just pipping Ward to the line. It didn’t go any better for Zoetemelk in the basketball competition where they had to score 5 shots in as fast a time as possible. Once again, the Dutch cyclist was last, two places behind Ward.
Surprisingly enough, Ward came last in the weightlifting competition as Zoetemelk wisely decided to sit out the round.
As with his previous appearance, Zoetemelk couldn’t take part in the bike race as Brian Jacks won his heat and beat Kruise in the final, as Ward could only finish in third place in his heat.
Zoetemelk’s consistency continued as he finished in last place in each of the gym test, the swimming race and the obstacle course. In the gym test, the competitors had to achieve as many parallel bar dips and squat thrusts as they could in the allotted time. Whilst Jacks scored a very impressive 80 points, Zoetemelk managed just one.
His final tally in the competition was just three points compared to Jacks’ winning total of 48, as Tony Ward finished in 6th place with 15 points. It was Zoetemelk’s last appearance at Superstars.
Zoetemelk’s poor performance wasn’t unique for a cyclist. In his 1976 appearance, Raymond Poulidor also finished last in his heat which was won by Bjorn Borg. In 1979, Paris-Roubaix winner Walter Godefroot nabbed last place in his heat as he scored 1 out of 5 penalties and took over 15 seconds to finish the 100m sprint.
The programme disappeared from TV screens for nearly ten years, but when it returned in 2002, Chris Boardman helped to salvage the reputation of cyclists as he finished 2nd behind rugby player Austin Healey. The 1992 Olympic pursuit champion finished ahead of the likes of footballers Dwight Yorke and Gianluca Vialli, Rower Steve Redgrave and rugby player Martin Offiah.
Despite Boardman’s performance though, cyclists didn’t emerge from the TV series with a great reputation as all-round sportsmen. It would be great to see the programme coming back again, although it’s difficult to tell whether today’s cyclists would perform any better than their predecessors.