Opinion: Tao, Zlatan and how to cut through pro cycling's white noise

This week, the Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic hit the headlines over comments relating to the social activism and injustice-raising of basketball great Lebron James. “I like [Lebron] a lot,” Ibrahimovic said. “He’s phenomenal, what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people with a status speak about politics. Do what you’re good at doing.” 

“I play football because I’m the best at playing football. I’m no politician. If I’d been a politician, I would be doing politics.

“This is the first mistake famous people do when they become famous: for me it is better to avoid certain topics and do what you’re good doing, otherwise you risk doing something wrongly.” (Presumably, the less said about his failed 2018 clothing line, the better. Should have kept out of the fashion lane, Zlatan...)

The answer to this is very simple: surely when you’re at the top, you should give everyone else a helping hand up. As an obvious sporting counterpoint to this verbal own goal, I give you Tao Geoghegan Hart (below). One of the first public-facing actions the Ineos Grenadier took after winning the Giro d’Italia, and “becoming famous”, was to confront diversity. He took a stand, or rather a knee – the first male WorldTour cyclist to do so.

By publicly bearing his social conscience, he has marked himself out as a de facto spokesperson for these issues. Not easy, but worthwhile; things don’t change without effort and action. It should empower others to act, or at least speak out so his voice isn’t a lone one.

Why is it so important? Here’s a case in point. On Monday, I attended the latest seminar organised by British academic and writer Marlon Moncrieffe about advancing anti-racism in cycling. It gathered four Black racing cyclists, ranging from the ages of 22 to 53, together on a Zoom call. The hour-long conversation sparkled with their love of cycling, recollections of racing incidents and how they got hooked on the sport. The tone was genial; they were not there to “speak out”.

But when asked whether they had felt their ethnicity in the sport, their answers cut through the white noise. Often, it was a case of realising subconscious biases with hindsight – the national teams they should have been picked for, the breaks they think they would otherwise have got. One rider was spat at and abused by seven riders in an escape for skipping turns – one of the most common tactics in the textbook. Would that have happened if they were white? Of course not.

Sometimes, it was sadly overt. At one race, a so-called friend on a rival team called American Rahsaan Bahati the n-word. “It got to the point I couldn’t be quiet anymore. I was so upset that I grabbed him by the helmet straps,” Bahati said. “I told the officials ‘if you don’t take this racist guy out of the race, I will.’ I was willing to sacrifice everything … as I grew older, I didn’t allow those types of situations to affect my cycling. Because it wasn’t my problem, it was their problem.”

Politics and sport are intertwined. When one can influence the other in such damaging, ignorant ways, why should sportspeople ever stay quiet on those conversations? 

A broader question for overwhelmingly-white pro cycling is what next – how to become more diverse? Currently, the sport is some way behind the rest in its action. Premier League footballers have been taking a knee before the whistle blows for every match since June. Last summer, the roster of Formula 1 drivers wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “END RACISM” pre-race and the majority took the knee.

Image credit: ASO/Alex Broadway

The only comparison in cycling is the example shown before the processional final stage of the Tour de France, where a smattering of riders wore face masks with #NoToRacism on them. It was a missed opportunity, an afterthought on the sport’s biggest stage, but it isn’t too late. 

In that instance, it was the riders themselves who arranged that reaction. It really behoves an organisation – the CPA, most likely, though action from the UCI or other leading race organisers would be refreshing – to step forward and help to organise. Talking, acting, offering visual reminders, doing something would be better than nothing. 

Riders, managers, organisers, media: open up the closed bubble of pro cycling and acknowledge the wider world and the greater good because everyone wins. As Tao Geoghegan-Hart told the Guardian this week: “Everything is political. We’re all in this together.” Amen to that. And if Zlatan Ibrahimovic or other people don’t like it, well, that’s their problem.

Title image: William Cannarella/Cor Vos

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