Jesper Skibby was for a time the most popular cyclist in Denmark, a character who traded on roguish charm and a blunt Scandinavian wit. But in 1993 he found himself in a life-altering crash, hitting the asphalt so hard during a bunch sprint in the Tirreno-Adriatico that he suffered a double fracture of the skull. He pressed on with his career, channelling the stoicism of his ilk. Until, that is, a doctor concluded that the impact to Skibby’s head, sustained in an age before helmets became mandatory, had led to a mild form of epilepsy.
That same dread diagnosis has this week forced Wales flanker Jonathan Thomas, who won 67 caps for his country despite a litany of head traumas, into retirement aged 32. His explanation, that he had ignored his seizures for years and had desperately tried “digging in” to mitigate the mental fatigue, formed a worrying rebuke to conventional medical wisdom. It is an established truth that those who have experienced brain scars are 10 times more likely to develop epilepsy than the population as a whole, but this applies mainly to penetrating injuries, with internal bleeding. The notion that the condition could arise from the accumulated rough and tumble of rugby is a frightening one for the sport to face.
Thomas is adamant, identifying his epilepsy as a direct consequence of the punishment that his head took in the back row. He does not acknowledge that there is minimal literature to support such a theory. Indeed, rugby’s conversation about epileptics has tended to alight on the question of how to play in defiance of seizures, not on the idea that constant collisions on the field could be causing them in the first place. Tom Smith, the former Scotland prop, was saddled with nocturnal epilepsy from his schooldays but lionised for the fact that he never made a fuss about it.