BRUSSELS (AP) — Hein Verbruggen, the former president of the International Cycling Union who oversaw the worldwide spread of a sport often tainted by doping, has died. He was 75.
The UCI and the International Olympic Committee both reacted to the news on Wednesday, underscoring the Dutchman’s clout within both organizations.
The IOC flew its flag at half staff and Dutch King Willem-Alexander, a former IOC member, called him “a man with a big heart for the Olympic movement, for cycling and those close to him.”
Dutch cycling association spokesman Kevin Leenheers confirmed the death, saying Verbruggen died on Tuesday night.
Critics said Verbruggen was too close to those involved in doping. He was often confronted for his relationship with Lance Armstrong, the American rider who was the face of cycling with his seven Tour de France victories before he came to embody the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs.
Time and again Verbruggen faced accusers saying he was colluding with dopers instead of countering them. Just as often, he fought back to save his tarnished reputation. He proclaimed his innocence until his death.
Verbruggen was a consummate businessman all his life, yet he was never able to shake the doping scandals during his reign.
The reason for his opposition to doping was simple, he said.
“I want to get rid of doping because it prevents me from selling the sport,” Verbruggen said three decades ago, as he was making his way up the ladder in the cycling world.
As a sales manager at Mars food, he got into cycling and found a sport which was totally antiquated when others like tennis were developing with the times and becoming successful professional enterprises.
When cycling still centered mainly on France, Belgium and Italy for major races, Verbruggen was already dreaming about the world at large, driven by such ideas as World Cup rankings to get a more global appeal.
“Protect in Europe what we have, and then afterwards comes America,” he said.
And no one was bigger in America than Armstrong. With his fightback from cancer to become the dominant rider of his age, the storybook saga was cut out for Verbruggen to push the internationalization of the sport.
The two thrived together until the rumors of doping became overpowering. The strongest claims were that the UCI helped cover up an Armstrong positive test at the 1999 Tour de France, the Texan’s first victory, and at another race two years later. Verbruggen denied it.
Verbruggen served as UCI president for 14 years and stepped down after Armstrong’s seventh straight Tour win. Afterward, those years came to be defined as the doping era.
Two years ago, a year-long investigation found no proof that a payment Armstrong made to the UCI was to cover up a positive test even though it said the Verbruggen era was marked by “inadequate” policies on doping.
Beyond cycling, Verbruggen was also a major presence in the Olympic movement and was instrumental in the preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“For this, he will be always remembered,” IOC President Thomas Bach said.
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