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THE SUPERSTAR

Herbie Sykes Tekst Herbie Sykes Gepubliceerd 12 September 2019

When we were kids, we used to watch Superstars. For those unfamiliar, it was a multi-discipline sporting event, and it featured champions from… a multiplicity of sporting disciplines. If memory serves, Kevin Keegan was very good at it, at least until he fell off his bike on that cinder track. Kevin Keegan was very good at most everything in life, and so was the smarmy decathlete Daily Thompson. 

Best of all was a judo guy named Brian Jacks. I seem to think he was the architect of a judo mini-boom, because, come-one come-all, he always won the grand final of Superstars. He was a master of the clean-and-jerk and an insatiable squat-thruster, and he put it all down to his not-so secret weapon. He used to suck oranges, and, because he sucked them, we did too. A million English schoolboys sucked them at half-time, at play-time, and, because they were cheap, at teatime. Oranges weren’t quite the only fruit in early 1980s Britain, but they weren’t far off. 

The thing about Superstars was the variety. There were eight events, and they’d each to choose six. They skipped the two they were likely to be least good at, but of course some were more versatile than others. Sometimes there’d be an international event, and you’d get an American basketball player attempting, hilariously, to take penalties at Gordon Banks. There’d be a great larruping shot-putter, fingers and thumbs at the ping-pong table, or a scrawny outside-left thrashing around hopelessly in the shallows. That was funny, and still more so if the one doing the thrashing happened to be foreign. The English loved laughing at the hapless foreigners with their funny accents, but that was okay, because this was Superstars. It was swings and roundabouts, and by the law of averages even the foreigners had to be good at something.

Photo: Cor Vos

Everyone, that was, except for this funny Dutch cycling guy. He came last in everything, and he didn’t look at all like the others. Because he was really skinny, his Superstars vest hung off him, and, because he had no hair, he looked really old. Because he had no muscles, he looked really weak, and, because he was foreign, he wasn’t even bothered that he was useless. We assumed an authentic superstar must have dropped out at the last minute, and he was all they could find at short notice.   

There was, as you can imagine, a certain clubiness about the superstars. By definition they’d something–high-end competitive sport–in common, and they all looked, moved, and talked like top-end athletes. They’d a lot of talent and a lot of testosterone, and of course they were enjoined by the Superstars experience. The producers were at pains to articulate the collegiate nature of the programme, and of organized sport in general. Because the luddite English had never been subject to anything even remotely resembling ideology, they’d never learned to take sports seriously. They took sports hooliganism quite seriously, but that was another matter entirely. 

Their diet was poor, their playing fields were being sold off, and so one way or another they (we) were increasing sedentary and increasingly podgy. The idea, therefore, was to encourage them (us) to participate in sports through a government initiative named “Sport For All”. It was borrowed loosely from the more enlightened Eastern European countries and, because the BBC was a public service broadcaster, the more articulate superstars were enlisted to promote it. 

Those doing the promoting didn’t include the funny Dutch guy with the funny Dutch head, the funny Dutch body, and the funny Dutch name because he never spoke on camera. He didn’t say anything and, beyond smiling a lot and looking a bit gormless, couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t kick a ball or shoot a pistol, and he sure as hell couldn’t paddle a canoe. He couldn’t beat his way out of a wet paper bag because he was the opposite of a superstar. He was supershit.   

Photo: Cor Vos

I told my dad I could probably beat the Dutch guy on my 10-speed Falcon, but for some reason he said he thought that highly unlikely. I said, “Yes but he’s rubbish at everything!” but my dad said, “Cycling’s not like other sports”. He’d raced, my dad, so I invited him, as politely as I knew how, to explain. He couldn’t, and so that was just another example of my being 14 and his knowing absolutely nothing about absolutely anything…

My dad had always wanted to ride the Alpe, and in 2014 he was over at mine while the Tour was on. We decided to do it the morning of the stage, so we got up bright and early and set off. We rolled along the bottom, and tried to stay together as best we could when we hit the climb proper. When we passed turn 16, I saw the sign, and I saw my dad looking at it as well. The sign said 

JOOP ZOETEMELK

(PAYS BAS)

and I was going to ask if he remem…

The problem was there were people all over the road now, and I couldn’t shout to him and couldn’t reach him. We lost sight of each other, just as we’d known we would, but that was fine. When he rang me, I told him I’d had to climb off at Dutch Corner, because it was absolute pandemonium. He said he’d had to climb off as well, and that he’d had no idea there would be quite so many of them. He told me to stay put, and that he’d come and find me.

He came and found me, and he had a fantastic afternoon at the Tour. There were people from France there, and Denmark and Portugal and of course Holland. While we were waiting for Moser and Riblon to come up ,I asked him if he remembered Superstars, but he said he didn’t and carried on chatting to a couple from Utrecht. He was never much for sitting in front of the TV, my dad. 

It was the last proper ride we did together and, for now at least, the best ride we ever did together. 

Photo: Herbie Sykes