Fédération Française de Tennis
2 avenue Gordon Bennett
Let me begin by congratulating the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT) on the successful conclusion of the 2017 French Open Championship. Without a doubt, the French Open is one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world. This year’s event was memorable for me as I witnessed Rafael Nadal achieve the “La Decima” and Jelena Ostapenko defy the odds to win her maiden Grand Slam title. But equally memorable was observing the racial disparity in the assignment of roles and responsibilities between black and white workers/contractors at Roland Garros. I trust that you would not dismiss this letter as the ranting of a paranoid black spectator playing the race card.
During his victory speech, Nadal paid tribute to the volunteers and workers who work behind the scene to make the French Open a successful tournament. Even though tennis players are the centre of attention, it is the stewards, umpires, ball boys/girls, security guards, cleaners, court maintenance crew and the caterers that make things happen. However, if one carries out a critical examination of the allocation of the various tasks at Roland Garros one would notice the existence of a “colour coded scheme.” I appreciate that this colour-coded scheme might have escaped the attention of the FFT. It might have even escaped the attention of hundreds of thousands of fans who were probably focused on watching their tennis idols ply their trade. But it didn’t escape my attention because as tennis coach — Richard Williams would say, “Black and White is the way I see it.”
One of the high-profile roles at the French Open is that of the host/hostess and stewards. The host/hostess are the smartly dressed men and women who attend to the needs of the VIP guests. There are two categories of stewards namely the external and internal stewards. The external stewards check the tickets at the entrance to the show courts. The female external stewards are elegantly clothed in “Suzanne Lenglen” inspired cream dresses and the male stewards wear white polo shirts and orange trousers. The internal stewards stay inside the show courts and act as a second layer of control to ensure that the spectators have their tickets. They are easily recognisable by their white BNP Paribas inscribed Adidas t-shirts. Besides these high-profile duties, there are other functions like the security guards, caterers and retailers.
During my four-day visit to Roland Garros, I observed that while a mixture of black and white workers carried out most of the low profile roles, predominately white people carried out the high profile and visible functions. In the hosting department, nearly all of the host and hostess attending to the needs of the VIP guests were white. The racial composition of the stewarding team became apparent shortly after the Men’s single final when the stewards formed two human walls in front of the Philippe Chatrier Court to bid the spectators farewell. From the images below, it is clear that there is a whitewashed stewarding team.
It wasn’t until I went to the toilet that I began to observe the racial disparity at Roland Garros. When I got to the toilet at Court One, I noticed that the attendants in the toilet were black. This trend wasn’t specific to one toilet on a particular day. Over the course of my four-day visit to Roland Garros, I noticed that the two toilets at Court One in addition to the toilet at the Suzanne Lenglen Court were manned by black and brown faces .
I didn’t see any white person sitting at the “toilet reception desk.” Besides being over-represented in the toilet department, black and brown faces also topped the chart in the Roland Garros Refuse Collection Department .
Admittedly, there might have been white people manning the toilets and black people working in the high-profile roles, which I might have overlooked, however, this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. For the sake of clarity, I am not accusing the FFT of racism. I also appreciate that the FFT outsources some services to third parties and might not have participated in the recruitment process. However, the FFT has a responsibility to ensure that the service providers act in a socially responsible manner.
The FFT cannot and should not fold its arms as only white hostesses get the privilege to interact with important guests; as only white ball boys and girls get the privilege to take pictures with Nadal ; as only white stewards get the privilege to wear their fashionable dresses while only black and brown people get the privilege of clearing the dung of white people visiting the tournament.
Tennis is often viewed as a lily white sport and the proliferation of black faces clearing the dustbins and cleaning the toilets and the exclusion of black faces in customer facing roles in a major tennis championship such as Roland Garros only reinforces the claim. Furthermore, the French Open is sort of a pseudo-French Embassy so the colour coded allocation of job tasks at Roland Garros could give justification to those who believe that racism is rife in France.
I strongly believe that there is dignity in labour after the entire tournament would be a failure if there were nobody to clean the toilet and clear the rubbish. However, I also believe that black and brown people should be adequately represented in other areas at Roland Garros. The FFT may also want to check that the black and brown workers are not being exploited and ensure that the workers are paid a living wage.
Even though France doesn’t keep data on the ethnic composition of its population, the racial allocation of jobs at the French Open is at odds with the racial composition of France in general and Paris in particular. I urge you to investigate my claim and if it is true, please put structures in place to ensure that tasks are allocated on a fair and equitable basis rather than on a privileged colour basis.
Women’s Tennis Association
Association of Tennis Professionals
International Tennis Federation
Laura Flessel : Minister of Sports
Grand Slam Committee