Racist slurs, stubborn animals, and colonial fear

On 28 July 2021, during the Olympic Cycling individual men’s time trial, cameras caught the German cyclist Nikias Arndt chasing his competitors Azzedine Lagab from Algeria and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier from Eritrea. While passing his coach Patrick Moster, the latter tried to motivate Arndt by shouting “Go get the camel drivers! Get the camel drivers! Come on!”, clearly audible on live television.

The immediate reactions in traditional and social media in Germany were unanimous: journalists, audiences, and the cyclists from the team (including Arndt himself) said, wrote, and tweeted that they felt “appalled” and “ashamed” about this type of “unacceptable” behaviour by one of their representatives. After the race, Moster published a half-apology, citing the “high overall pressure” at the Olympics in Japan as a reason for why “in the heat of the moment” his “word choice” had been a “mistake”, for which he was “deeply sorry”. A day later, the German Olympic Sports Confederation terminated Moster’s participation in the Olympic team and sent him back to Germany.

Insults in context

There exists a consensus that racist slurs should not be ventilated, so many media outlets did not reproduce the actual term, but instead wrote about a “racist utterance” or “lapse” when reporting about the event. From an academic perspective, however, it helps to take the semantics of slurs seriously, as they provide glimpses at the sociocultural sub-conscious of the insulter and their cultural environments. And in that respect, the “camel driver”-incident at the Tokyo Olympics is on the one hand peculiar (because it is a surprisingly archaic word choice), and on the other hand embedded in a long tradition of (mis)representing cultural Others in German sports.

A look at academic literature shows that ‘the camel driver’ has a long history as a stereotype in Orientalist literature and art, as Edward Said discussed in his seminal book Orientalism in 1978. He explained that ‘the camel driver’, in line with ‘the moneychanger’ and ‘the slave trader’ has been a recurring character in Orientalist literature since the 19th century. In such depictions, the camel driver usually embodied the “degenerate scoundrel”, who posed as a servile minion, but spun clever intrigues, and was essentially treacherous and selfish. In combination with an animal that is said to be stubborn and difficult to work with, the camel driver embodied incompetence, failing efforts, and easy defeat over the course of many narratives. Said concluded that such stereotypes about men from ‘the Orient’ helped “European culture [gain] strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.”

Only with this background can we understand how and why a German sports coach would opt for this rather old-fashioned term as an insult intended to motivate a cyclist to chase his opponents. This slur is ultimately based on an ideology in which certain people – here: cyclists from African countries – are ‘unworthy’ to beat a white European, and thus a remnant of colonial thinking in competitive sports, where losing is, on the one hand, normal and part of sports, but on the other hand, losing against ‘inferior’ cultures is still considered shameful, at least by some.

Germans vs. men who work with animals

Interestingly, the term ‘camel driver’ describes, on the denotative level, not an ethnicity, religion, or nation, but a very particular, old-fashioned, though in reality not dishonorable profession. Therefore, it is not only a racial-colonial, but also a classist insult directed at people working with animals. And at that, this case is much less unique than most commentators acknowledged. In fact, German athletes and fans have developed a long tradition of using similar job profiles as vehicles for insults. To name the most prominent example: in 2014, after the German national men’s soccer team won the FIFA World Cup, the team made negative headlines by mocking their Argentinian opponents after the final game with a song in which “the Gauchos” needed to stoop in front of the mighty Germans who had just beaten them. This followed the exact same pattern as the ‘camel driver case’: using an existing cultural stereotype of men working with animals to imply German superiority against an allegedly agricultural Other. These parallels are no coincidence, considering that Germany prides itself in its highly industrialized, technologized, post-agricultural economic setup.

In other words, the ‘camel driver incident’ functioned at the intersection of three different but interrelated cultural phenomena. It entails colonial perspectives that imply the backwardness and incompetence of North Africans and is hence clearly racist. Secondly, it is also classist, in that it degrades jobs in the agricultural sector. Thirdly, it provides a glimpse at a central fear in parts of German culture: to not be able to live up to its own arrogance as a highly developed, post-agricultural civilization, and to lose against people from countries that are supposedly less technologized and less efficient, countries in which men supposedly still work with stubborn animals, and who should therefore be easily defeatable. The ‘colonizer’s fear’ – to see their claims to superiority shattered by reality – is a well-documented phenomenon, and as old as colonialism itself. Fragments of it remain alive in German competitive sports. Consequently, derogative terms such as “camel drivers” or “gauchos” against international opponents need to be taken seriously beyond the individual “lapse” of one coach, in the context of shifting power patterns among nations and cultures.