Commentary: Reflections on the ‘velodrome of whiteness’ at the London Olympics

Dr. Marlon Moncrieffe explains why the exclusion of Black riders from Great Britain's Olympic success has made cycling seem like a sport for white riders only.

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Dr. Marlon Moncrieffe is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, where his focus is on applying 20th-century Black-British history in the development of teaching curriculums. He is also a former elite cyclist, and his research has focused on Black cyclists in Great Britain. 

The explosion of Black Lives Matter protests across the UK and the USA has grabbed the attention of the cycling media, which is using its platform to explore the once-forbidden topic of racism in cycling. The passed-over stories of commonly unknown elite and professional Black athletes of the sport are being picked over for sharing a reflective understanding of how their cycling careers were stymied by pro cycling’s sheer whiteness.

The global cycling media is almost entirely comprised of white journalists and commentators, which is perhaps why the topics of racism and whiteness in cycling are rarely discussed with mainstream audiences. But here’s the thing: This topic and these stories have been talked about backstage for years. It’s a discussion I have in the past followed closely on internet forums.

Dr. Moncrieffe at his presentation on Black British cyclists. Photo: Photo: Marlon Moncrieffe

In 2009 writer Matt Seaton of the Guardian approached the topic of cycling’s failure to attract more Black riders. The conversation didn’t get very far. Then, in 2014, British writer and broadcaster Ned Boulting brought attention to the explicit racism of the 1970s faced by elite Black British track riders Maurice Burton and Joe Clovis. Still, an examination of how racism may or may not have figured in distorting elite Black British cyclists’ career experiences over the next 50 years had not been developed.

For me, as a Black British man, and formerly a competitive racing cyclist [1994 to 2014] I retain a curiosity about the topics of whiteness and racism in the sport. When I competed, it was extremely rare for me to observe or to know of any other time-trailing, road-racing, and track sprint cyclists of similar ethnic identity to my own.

My thoughts on what I describe below as a ‘velodrome of whiteness’ at the London 2012 Olympic games generated questions in my head about the dominance of whiteness in cycling become louder:

Why has Great Britain never been represented by a Black British athlete at the Olympic Games in either road or track cycling?

What are the reasons for this?

These became the core questions of my life-history academic research project that began in 2016 out of the University of Brighton entitled: Made In Britain: Uncovering the Life Histories of Black-British Champions in Cycling. I wanted to make meaning from the Black experience in elite and professional road and track cycling from the 1970s to current times. I wanted to give an examination and analysis of this from a Black British perspective.

It felt to me that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) coverage of the London 2012 Olympics Games was planted at the velodrome for the entire fortnight. The expectation of gold medal success was unquestionable, especially following Great Britain’s multiple successes at the Beijing 2008 Olympic games.

The mass array of Great Britain’s Union Jack flag floating above the sea of white faces in the velodrome generated an affective atmosphere of British nationalism. Yes, this was a home Olympics, and perhaps not unexpected.

Dr. Moncrieffe believes the lack of diversity on Team Great Britain during the 2012 Olympics showcased cycling as a white-only sport. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Still, as a Black British man who had framed much of his adult life through the white world of cycling, the velodrome became a symbolic form of violence. Track cycling was being celebrated exclusively in a racialized space where whiteness and white British people dominated. I did not feel included by this.

In 2016 British Cycling announced a 700 percent increase in its membership; up from 15,000 members in 2005 to 125,000 including 750,00 new members since 2012. There truly has been a revolution in the sport.

My observations of distinctively new people emerging on the British cycling scene include the white British middle-class MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra); the white British middle-class parent and child equipped with a £10,000 racing bike at national youth races; as well as enthusiastic Black cyclists, both men and women.

Unsurprisingly, some members of the latter group speak to their experiences of hostility and marginalization by the dominant white British cycling community.

The Black Lives Matter movement has spurred some Black cyclists to announce their formation of a Black and minority ethnic race team, arguing that this will create a necessary space for Black cyclists that is denied by the exclusivity of whiteness the cycling community. This announcement was hailed as a cause for celebration by many on social media.

A poster advertising Dr. Moncrieffe’s exhibit on Black British cyclists at the Herne Hill velodrome.

However, I saw one particular critical comment that threw caution to this by suggesting:

  • We need to look deep into the heart of British cycling and admit this team is a symbol of our failures as a cycling culture
  • Don’t celebrate — be very, very concerned

Race logic as the constructed binary of Black and white is meant to create division between human beings. The mechanisms of racism is to inculcate a sense of inferiority. This means that aggrieved Black people can end up emulating the violence of their white oppressors.

The violence of separatism being a protest to the oppression caused by the systematic violence of ‘whiteness’ and racism will cause a mixture of interpretations: some seeing a sense of agency and empowerment this; some seeing this as creating further divisions in the cycling community. The panacea for addressing the deeper issues of ‘whiteness’ and racism in the British cycling community becomes even more elusive.

Joint submission as a collective force is required to address these deeper issues. Power from the bottom and power from the top must meet in the middle to find common ground.

I see this approach as the more likely to achieve the desired social transformation in the British cycling community. It will take innovative thinking, planning, action, time, and commitment for equality of ethnic representation in elite and professional road and track cycling in Britain to be seen as a norm.

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