Thierry Sabine, the flamboyant Frenchman who seven years ago founded the grinding annual motor rally from Paris to Dakar, capital of the West African nation of Senegal, had made a solemn undertaking. This year, he said, the 1,500-km event would be “more beautiful, longer and tougher” than ever. But by the time the leaders arrived in Dakar last week, the toll taken by the dangerous competition had led to a furious controversy. Political critics castigated the race for creating the spectacle of a “feast among famine” in the drought-plagued sub-Sahara region. Further doubt was cast over the future of the event when Sabine died after his helicopter crashed near the town of Timbuktu in Mali, killing all five people aboard.
The more than 1,200 entrants who set out on Jan. 1 in cars, trucks and motorcycles faced twisting roads, bewildering expanses of desert and jungle trails on the 22-day journey through France, by ferry over the Mediterranean, across the Sahara Desert and into subtropical Africa. But when the rally reached the halfway mark in Niger, one-third of the entrants had dropped out because of exhaustion, injury or mechanical breakdowns. Twenty-one injured rallyists, at least two of whom were in comas, were flown back to France on emergency flights.
The first fatality occurred in southern France, when Japanese motorcyclist Yasuo Kanedo was struck and
killed by a drunk driver. Sabine, 36, who devised the race as a way of testing drivers to their limits and was nicknamed the “megalomaniac of the sands” by the French media, died when his helicopter crashed into the desert at night. Also killed in the crash were the pilot, the radio operator, a newspaper reporter and Daniel Balavoine, a 33-year-old French rock star.
From the start, the rally was under heavy criticism. As the rally vehicles revved their engines at the starting line in front of the Versailles palace outside Paris, police dispersed protesters drawn from almost 150 Third World aid groups. One of the protesters, agronomist René Dumont, compared the spectacle of Europeans seeking thrills amid Africa’s deprivation to “a group of rich people throwing a feast for themselves in the home of a poor person.”
Even before this year’s winners— René Metge and Dominique Lemoyne in a Porsche car and Cyril Neveu on a Honda motorcycle, all from Francecrossed the finish line in Dakar, the Paris journal Figaro predicted, “ParisDakar, c’est fini.” For his part, French Sports Minister Alain Calmat declared that this year’s rally “took too many risks—it cannot continue this way.” The minister clearly implied that the event will have to be made safer—or it may not be held at all.
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