Bruce Biddle may be the unluckiest New Zealand Olympic representative ever.
Biddle rode magnificently in the road race at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but was denied a place on the dais when he was edged out by Spaniard Jaime Huelamo, who finished third.
That was bad enough, but worse followed. When Huelamo failed a dope test days later and was disqualified, Biddle was placed in a weird no man's land. He was elevated to third place, but was never awarded a medal.
Normally you would think it impossible to finish third at an Olympic Games and not be awarded a medal. Biddle proved otherwise.
Gary Anderson is officially the first New Zealand cyclist to win an Olympic medal, in 1992. Biddle should have pre-empted him by 20 years.
The former Auckland carpenter lacked outright speed and so was never a great track rider. He was only small – 5ft 8in (1.73m) and 10st 963.5kg) – but through diligent training, turned himself into a superb road cyclist. He developed an ability to push himself right to the limit.
Biddle, born in Warkworth in 1949, burst on to the New Zealand road scene in 1969, his second season in senior ranks. Before that he had not even won an Auckland centre medal.
Murray Laloli, a coach of Italian extraction, was the man who set Biddle on his way, and their partnership soon produced results.
In 1969, Biddle won both the national road championship and the Dulux six-day classic from Auckland to Wellington. Previously that season he won the Auckland 4000m individual pursuit on the track and the bronze in that event at the nationals.
In the Dulux, Biddle was the first rider to win the tour without ever winning a stage, which pointed to his durability. He became an automatic selection for the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.
In the road race in Edinburgh, Biddle received fine support from track specialists Harry Kent and Blair Stockwell, and later from Bryce Beeston. The supporting New Zealanders covered the early breaks and, once Biddle was out in the lead group, controlled the chasing back, slowing it down. The 21-year-old Biddle flew around the 31 laps of Edinburgh's Holyrood Park, despite the driving rain and strong winds, and then fought it out over the closing stages with Australian Ray Bilney for the gold medal. Biddle could not shake off the Australian during the final climb up Arthur's Seat, and looked across at Bilney and said: “I'll be sprinting for the silver.” The Australian smiled, because he, too knew, he was the supposed to be the better sprinter.
With 200m remaining, and the crowd screaming, the Australian was in the lead, Biddle locked on to his rear wheel. Then with under 100 metres left, Biddle sensed his chance, swung to the inside, almost in the gutter, and fought inch by head to get ahead. He won by half a wheel in 4h 38min 6s. New Zealanders did not have a great time of it in Edinburgh in 1970s, but Biddle's victory, and that of Kent in the one kilo sprint, were highlights.
To prepare for the 1972 Olympics, Biddle spent more than a year based in London, racing on the Continent.
The experienced he gained in such a tough racing environment proved invaluable during the 200km Olympic race. It was an undulating and fast course, and Biddle handled it well. He had trained with the Italian team and during the race, he shadowed the Italians, covering their breaks and getting the benefits of their tactics.
He reached the line 27 seconds behind Dutch victor, Hennie Kuiper. His 4h 15min 4s was the same time given to Australian silver medallist Clyde Sefton and to Huelamo – the three of them crossed in a blanket finish.
This was in 1972 – the early days of drug testing. After the race the three medallists and three other cyclists picked at random were tested. New Zealand cycling manager Colin Hollows persuaded Biddle to go with him to doping control after the race and ask to be tested.
“I wasn't very keen at the time,” Biddle said later. “I was so disappointed about not being up on the dais that the last thing I wanted to do was a drugs test. But Colin told me I should do a test. He said that you never knew what might happen. So I went along, though I was unenthusiastic about it. Then the officials at doping control turned me away. I didn't care at the time. I was so disillusioned about not being in the top three.”
A couple of days later came news that Huelamo had returned a positive test, with traces of banned coramine being found in his sample. The Spaniard had his bronze medal withdrawn, and Biddle was promoted to third.
But the matter of the bronze medal was not so straightforward. With so much time having passed since the race there was no suggestion of Biddle now doing a drugs test. And because Biddle had not been tested immediately after the race, the International Olympic Committee, guided by International Cycling Union rules, would not award him a medal. “The result was on the one hand very pleasing and on the other something of a delusion,” Biddle said, somewhat bitterly.
The situation was farcical - Biddle was officially placed in the top three, but did not get a medal. And that's been the inexplicable state of affairs ever since.
Biddle, a wonderful rider and one of New Zealand's best games competitors, turned professional soon after and settled in Italy. But his case was not forgotten at home.
In late 2002 IOC president Jacques Rogge visited New Zealand and New Zealand Olympic Committee president John Davies raised the issue with him. Rogge didn't know about the Biddle affair when he arrived, but he was acquainted with the facts fairly quickly. He was presented with a dossier on the case, and this included affidavits from the cycling team manager of the time, the New Zealand team chef de mission and Biddle himself, stating that they had sought a drug test immediately after the race but been turned down.
Rogge promised that the IOC would re-examine the case. But it went nowhere. Some months later the IOC advised that because the 1972 cycling events were run by the International Cycling Union, and the union would not award a bronze medal to Biddle because of the absence of a drug test, nothing could be done.
Biddle felt that if he'd been riding for Italy he would have been awarded a medal. “The New Zealand cycling officials were not a very strong group and I don't know how committed they were to getting me the medal at the time. The Spaniards should have given up the medal. It would have been the ethical thing to do once their guy failed the test, but Huelamo returning a positive shocked them. It's the last thing they'd have been expecting. There were certainly drugs in cycling at that time, but you'd have expected that for an Olympics, the cyclists from the big countries like Italy, Spain and France would have made sure they were clean.”
There was a pleasant footnote to the Biddle story soon after the Munich Olympics. “During the first road race I competed in after the Olympics the organisers in Tuscany presented me with a gold medal. They knew what had gone on in Munich and were acknowledging my effort, which was very thoughtful of them and meant a lot to me.”
In 1973 Biddle turned pro and during the rest of the 1970s forged a successful career team riding all around the Continent. When his racing days were over, he made Italy his home.