Yohann Gène: Pioneer

I‘ve been watching the Tour de France this summer, awed by the physical prowess of the 190+ cyclists who brave the equivalent (it is said) of marathon after marathon, for three weeks straight. The American commentary is on Versus, an NBC satellite, with two seasoned Brits at the call and a former American competitor offering color commentary. There are not too many Americans in the Tour, and only one in the running for an overall victory, so most time is spent analyzing team tactics and supposed individual rivalries (the channel, after all, is called “versus.”)

The other day I noticed a man with dark skin among the sea of white riders. Quite a tan, I thought foolishly, and then I realized he must be African or part African. I was shocked to realize that he is, in fact, the only man of African descent in the entire Tour. His name is Yohann Gène, a Frenchman whose family is from Guadaloupe (a French territory), riding for Team Europcar. Most Tour cycling teams are based in one European nation or another, but all have international rosters. Despite this, and despite Europe’s rising racial diversity, most riders represent a single ethnic group from a wholly European source. That is, the Tour is not diverse; it is neither representative of the world at large nor even of the modern population of Europe.

I can’t imagine that cycling is such a narrow sport that more Asian or African or South American riders would not be qualified to ride in the Tour, as prestigious as it is. This is a sorry statement for modern Europe to make, given the recent tides of racial unrest in countries like France and Denmark, and the rise of nationalist, anti-immigration parties across the continent.

One might think that, given the complete lack of reporting about Gène on Versus or anywhere else, that having a rider of African descent on one’s team is not such a big deal. Wrong. Team Europcar’s manager says, “We have been subject to racism. I had to deal with a few problems and contact sponsors of two foreign teams about it. After the doping incidents, I couldn’t let racism be part of cycling.” Are you serious? This is happening? What decade is this?

This is, clearly, not a post about architecture, but I’m so incensed that I thought I’d vent a little rage here in this blog. To clarify, I’m angry that no major news outlet is reporting on this major breakthrough, and I’m angry that elite athletes and their managers would turn out to be racist.  I am not a jingoistic sort, but as an American I feel the least I can do is champion the principles of civil rights that have allowed our culture to thrive. Maybe we can get Versus to cover Gène’s story. Put a comment on the Versus Facebook cycling page, or tweet @bobkeroll (the Versus American commentator) and let them know that breaking ancient racial barriers is important to you. Thanks!