Azzedine Lagab was thrilled to be in Tokyo this past week, representing Algeria at the Olympic Games and competing against the very best riders in the world, but he flew home with a sour taste in his mouth.
Lagab said he felt 'like a star' as the Japanese fans shouted his name during Wednesday’s time trial, but little did he know someone else was shouting something far more malign.
German coach Patrick Moster was heard on camera yelling: ‘go catch the camel drivers’ as he offered encouragement to Nikias Arndt from the sidelines. Lagab was one of four riders ahead of Arndt on the course, the others being Eritrea's Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier, Iran's Saeid Safarzadeh, and Ahmad Badreddin Wais, a Syrian refugee who was representing the Refugee Olympic Team.
"It’s not just about me but about a whole culture," Lagab told Cyclingnews during an interview from his home.
"It’s so sad that it happens, and at the biggest event in the world. It was widely spread, and there was a lot of anger from all my Arabic and African followers. It was the same feeling also for me."
Lagab placed 36th in the time trial and immediately had to pack up and head to the airport to catch his flight home. It was only then that he learned of the episode he was caught up in.
"I left the Fuji speedway right after the finish, because we had a bus to catch one hour after my finish – that’s why I didn’t want to be on the podium! Once in the airport I received a notification of someone tagging me on Instagram, but it was in German. I asked for a translation and it made me upset for sure, but I didn’t have enough time to react as we were busy with check-in," he said.
"Later I checked Twitter and read a story relating to the apology of Patrick saying that he reacted just in the heat of the moment. I founded that just as nasty as his act.
"Just before the plane took off, I just tweeted something funny about it and then once in Istanbul for transit, after 12 hours, I received thousands of notifications."
However, among those thousands of notifications, there was not one message from Moster nor anyone involved with German cycling.
"For now I have received no direct apology. I have read different statements, from the German Olympic Committee and the German Federation, and also from Nikias Arndt saying he is against racism, but nothing directly to me."
Lagab also confirmed he had not been contacted by the UCI or the International Olympic Committee. Cyclingnews has reached out to Ghebreigzabhier, Safarzadeh, and Wais, but has yet to speak to them directly.
"I have seen only statements, and I think just because it’s gone viral, so they felt they must to do it - just a thought," Lagab said.
Lagab, 34, races at Continental level, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. He is the current double national champion of Algeria, winning the road race title for the third time last month and the time trial title for the eighth time.
This was his second Olympics, after lining up in the road race in London in 2012. He did the road race as well this time, but was left disappointed.
"I tried to train hard to be ready, knowing the hard profile and aware that it would be hard to reach the finish line, so I just set a goal for myself to finish the race," he explained.
"I had good feelings and had some good results before flying to Tokyo, but I had a mechanical problem so I stopped to fix that and had to chase for several kilometres to get back in the wheels and that cost me lot of energy that I paid for on the Fuji climb. I got stopped among other riders after getting dropped. There were still 100km to the finish, so for me it was big disappointment.
"In the TT I just tried to go full gas with a bike that I received few days before the race. It wasn’t set up in the right position but I had no choice but to race with it and do my best. But it was a great moment for me with all the fans on sidelines cheering my name. I felt like a star! Japanese fan are just amazing and so polite."
What should have been a celebratory parting memory of the Games, however, was ultimately marred by Moster’s comments.
Asked whether the episode had spoiled his whole Olympic experience, he said: "I have mixed feelings about that.
"I was just there with no great ambitions – me, just a little amateur rider against the best in the world. I could have left the Olympics anonymously but proud of representing my country, but the German coach made me famous… and not the way I would want.
"I have mixed feeling about some media nowadays just focus on some scandals and don't shine a light on some of the hidden stories of lot of athletes struggling to survive and reaching the Olympics."
The racism scandal in Tokyo will force cycling to confront its problems with diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance. It is an overwhelmingly white European sport and major questions have been asked in recent months, with Tao Geoghegan Hart one of only a few to speak out and take direct action.
For Lagab, racism is just one problem rolled into what he sees as an unsavoury whole at the professional level.
"In my opinion – and this is just my opinion and I could be wrong – all these teams at a high level both in women’s and men’s cycling are built by people, so it’s all about the people and their cultures and education," he said.
"We have heard too much about mental problems with pro riders, pressure, sexual harassment, and racism. For sure, racism is a big problem but cycling faces other big problems too, aside from doping scandals. I think cycling has to do lot of cleaning inside, and clean it of all negative persons in order to avoid such scandals."
Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick joined Cyclingnews after a work experience stint in 2015 and hasn't left. Prior to that, he studied French and Spanish at university and went on to train as a journalist. Rides his bike to work but more comfortable on a football pitch.
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