Monday, August 11, 2008

The Next "Jackie Robinson" May be Named Bahati or Nderi

Here's a question for you ...What do Rahsaan Bahati, Zakayo Nderi and "Major" Taylor have in common?

I'll get right to the answer to that question in a minute, but, first, I have to explain that, for the past few weeks, I've been trapped, like many other casual sports fans in that limbo that exists each year between the end of basketball season and the start of football season.

I know, I know....there still is a thing called Major League Baseball that conducts games during this "slow" period but since that sport shifted its emphasis away from developing and recruiting young African-American star players several years ago, and since its leaders tried to blame the entirety of their game's rampant steroid abuse on one black man named Barry Bonds, I find it hard to watch baseball, anymore. Real hard.

All of that is "backdrop" to why I wound up spending so much of my free time, over a recent, three-week period, watching the Tour de France.

Yeah, that's right, the Tour de France.

It wasn't a complete coincidence. About a year ago, I actually started cycling, again -- not to enter "the Tour" or anything like it-- just for exercise and relaxation. It's a good thing.

For the promoters of the Tour de France, however, cycling is so much more than just a "good thing," exercise or relaxation. In fact, they unabashedly refer to their race as the World's Largest Sporting Event and they may very well have a strong argument. Two billion people worldwide follow the event each year on television, in 170 countries. In addition, twelve million spectators come out to watch the race, in person, along the 2,200-mile course.

This year's race began in a city named Brest, in western France, and finished some 2,175 miles and 23 days later, in Paris.

After watching this year's Tour de France, however, I was left with this conclusion: cycling is not that much different from pre-black baseball, pre-black basketball, or pre-black football. They were all missing something that wound up making them better--the participation by athletes of African descent. The ugly truth is that since the Tour de France began in 1903, only three African cyclists have ever participated, and all of that happened just this year, in 2008, and each one of those cyclists was white--two from South Africa and one from Kenya. So my take-away from the Tour de France is this: interesting sport, 20 teams, 180 cyclists, no black people.

Indeed, there were no black cyclists on either of the two U.S.-sponsored Tour de France teams (Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle), this year. Even more curious, there were no black cyclists on Barloworld, the South African team.

Does this mean that black folks don't know how to ride bicycles? Certainly not. It simply means that, over the past 105 years, no "Tour" team has thought there has ever been a black person anywhere on earth who might have contributed to the overall success of their team and its pursuit of the coveted first-place team finish.

Sounds like pre-Jackie Robinson Major League Baseball (prior to 1947), pre-Woody Strode National Football League (prior to 1946) and pre-Earl Lloyd/Chuck Cooper/"Sweetwater" Clifton National Basketball Association (prior to 1950). Of course, these players weren't the first blacks who were "qualified" or "good enough," they were just the first blacks to be given the opportunity. Sounds a lot like what happens today with opportunities in the construction industry, in Corporate America, in higher education, and in politics, right here in the good old U.S.A.

But here's where the name "Major" Taylor comes in. Taylor proved, back in 1899, when he won the world's one-mile track cycling championship, that black folks absolutely did know how to ride a bicycle. In fact, when "Major" entered his first professional bike race in 1896, at Madison Square Garden, he lapped the entire field during the half-mile race. That kind of talent didn't stop him from being banned from bicycle racing in his home state of Indiana, simply because he won too frequently, there. It didn't stop a competing cyclist in Massachusetts from tackling him on the track, in a jealous rage, and choking him into unconsciousness. Taylor has been embraced in America, only following his death, in 1932, and his name is little known outside of the circle of cycling historians and members of the chapters of the Major Taylor Association, across the country.

Following in "Major" Taylor's legacy in the separate specialty of road racing (the type of cycling practiced at "the Tour" and in Criterium events, such as Philadelphia's own Commerce Bank Pro-Cycling Race) is 26-year old Rahsaan Bahati, from Los Angeles. Bahati is generally recognized as one of cycling's brightest and fastest stars and, with a continuing focus on the endurance training demanded by the major "Tour" events, could be the first black Tour de France winner, assuming one of the 20-22 teams would make a place for him on their roster. All Bahati does is win. It would seem that at least one "Tour" team should be interested in that.

Finally, there is a black Kenyan cyclist, Zakayo Nderi, who may well represent the first in a whole new generation of East Africans who have the potential to re-write virtually every road racing record currently in existence. Nderi and his fellow-Kenyan cyclist Samwell Mwangi have been supported by a Singaporean named Nick Leong in an effort to prove that East Africans, the world's greatest endurance athletes, are able to transfer their prowess in distance and marathon events to endurance cycling events.

In fact, Leong, Nderi and Mwangi are on their way to France, as you read this, to have the Kenyan cyclists test their hill-climbing speed at Alpe d'Huez, the most difficult mountain stage of the Tour de France. From August 8th - August 15th, they will be comparing their times up that murderous ascent to times that great Tour de France riders, such as Lance Armstrong, have produced. If Nderi's times are competitive or beat the standard set by most Tour riders, it will constitute clear evidence that East Africans should be competing in the "Tour."

The logic behind this effort is pretty clear. Marathon racing, a very comparable endurance sport to Tour bike racing had no African participation until the late 1980's. Prior to that, it was commonly held that black Africans and African Americans could only excel in sprinting events. It was further believed that endurance races required a kind of strategy, intelligence and knowledge of the sport of running that blacks naturally did not possess. But now we all know what a "crock" that was. The Africans have absolutely dominated distance running since being given the opportunity. They certainly have "raised the bar" for athletes from every other part of the world in that discipline.

In fact, according to information provided by Leong, African runners have gone from winning just one of 25 major marathons in the five-year period ending in 1985, in London, Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York, to winning 24 out of the 25 marathons contested in those same cities over the five-year period ending in 2005.

It looks as though the next "Jackie Robinson" in a major sport may very well be named Zakayo Nderi or Rahsaan Bahati.

Somewhere, "Major" Taylor is looking down on all of this with a "serious" smile on his face.



LTolman said...

Thanks for the shout-out! More about Major Taylor:

-- Lynne Tolman

Harry said...

"The ugly truth is that since the Tour de France began in 1903, only three African cyclists have ever participated, and all of that happened just this year, in 2008, and each one of those cyclists was white--two from South Africa and one from Kenya."

That's just plain wrong. For starters, there was three white South Africans in the Barlowowrld squad, not two.

But more importantly, the first African cyclists competed in the Tour in its early days and several African riders have competed - and won stages - down through the years.

Rather than reycling press-releases, you might want to check out things like South Africa's Velokhaya, races like the Tour du Faso and just how popular cycling is in a country like Eritrea. You might also want to look at the black African cyclists who ride with pro licences in Africa and also those who have tried their hand at riding on the European pro circuit.

the black issue said...

It was good to hear from you, Harry,even though you seem to be curiously committed to your own misinformation. Why the antagonism?

Please trust that I do take great pains to research every fact that I publish in my posts, including the line about the number of South African cyclists, which you claimed to be "just plain wrong."

Since you don't seem to be inclined to hear the truth about the Tour de France from me, perhaps you'll believe the description of the 2008 Barloworld team members, as presented on the South African website link I've provided below.

I think the site makes it very clear which one of us was really "just plain wrong."

In any event, please keep reading, and have a good day, Harry.


Harry said...

You're right, I'm wrong, Daryl Impey didn't actually make the cut this year. I apologise.

But I do suggest you try checking your facts. Like maybe how many Tours de France Barloworld's Robbert Hunter has participated in. I think he might be upset if people thought 2008 was his maiden Tour rather than his seventh. Particularly as it would mean his 2007 stage win was being wiped from the record books.

Further, when talking about African participation in the Tour, why are you ignoring the Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan riders who have competed in the race? Some of whom have actually won stages. Are they not African countries?

the black issue said...

The good thing, Harry, is that it seems that we're both learning from our recent exchanges. I've discovered that white South African cyclist Robert Hunter has, in fact, participated in the Tour de France, dating back to 2001, and he did win the 11th stage, there, in 2007.

On the other hand, all outlets I've checked reaffirm that Hunter was not only the first South African, but also the first African of any race, to win a T de F stage. I've seen references to an Algerian cyclist long ago, but the info is murky. As you'll recall, our original point was that there have been no "black African" Tour de France participants, and I still stand by that statement.

You mentioned that you believed there has been significant Tour de France participation by cyclists from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and wondered whether I included those countries in my definition of African nations.

To begin with, I can understand that there may have been substantial Tour de France AWARENESS in those countries, given that each was a French colony or "protectorate" for many years, ending only in the 1950's.I'm sure they were immersed in French culture,during the colonization periods, including the country's sports.

Even further, and related to our original discussion of African-American and black African Tour de France participation, neither of those countries happens to claim a substantial black population group and are ethnically dominated by Berbers and Arabs, rather than sub-Saharan groups.

Finally, it's interesting to note that Morocco is the ONLY nation on the entire African continent that is not a member-country in the African Union. It does, however, claim membership in the Arab League. The better question, I guess, is whether the Moroccan government is comfortable with the reality of where its own country happens to be located. For my part, I consider them African. For purposes of our discussion,however, they should probably be excluded.

I've gone on too long. I trust this answers your questions.

It's time for my morning ride and "I'm out!"


Anonymous said...

In so far as the Tour de France goes I think to complain about the dirth of races of Black Africans is not correct. If there is any bias the evidence shows a European Centric bias. Even on the 2 American Licensed teams in the Tour there were only 4 non-Europeans on the teams.

In reality though I think what we face is a numbers game and not a bias game. You mention Bahati, an outstanding rider I have followed since his time wearing a Mercury Jersey. His strengths though do not lend to a race like the Tour de France, but rather races like Milan San Remo, Pari Tours and perhaps Paris Nice. However he is one of a clear minority of African American's that have lined up for even races at the amature level when you look at the sport nationwide. This is a factor of both economics and also popularity in the US among the African American community. From living in Europe a similar dynamic exists among the African decent community. To call it an ugly truth and try to insuate that it has something to do with prejudice at the management level of the top teams, rather than the lack of Black African decent participation at the grass roots level is disingenuous at best.

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