It was supposed to be sport, but at times the 8,000mile Paristo Dakar rally was more like mayhem. Motorcyclist Jean Claude Huger, a member of France’s elite Garde Republican, died when his BMW crashed near the ancient Sahara town of Timbuktu. Accidents also took the lives of a Dutch navigator, a French: driver and a West African woman spectator, and two young children died in other rally accidents, one crew got lost for 48 hours among the sand dunes, and in the most bizarre incident of all, and thieves “kidnapped” the car of Finland’s Ari Vatanen during a rest stop in Mali. When the three week endurance test finally ended last week, the result a victory for Finnish. Champion Juha Kankkunen in a Peugeot 205 —— seemed almost irrelevant amid the controversy that clouded the event’s future.

The grueling course snaked across some of the hottest, most inhospitable terrain one earth (map). Within days a third of the 600 vehicles that set out from Paris on New Year’s Day had dropped out, many on a desert leg appropriately dubbed “the apocalypse.” Organizers dismissed the rally’s high casualty rate —— 26 deaths since it began 10 years ago. “If you take a group of 2,000 people over a three week period, even if you leave them in a city instead of the desert, there are going to be hospitalizations and deaths,” said Senegalese rally official Diallo Kane.

The death toll aside, environmental it’s and aid officials assailed the event as a rich man’s spectacle amid the poor and famine threatened populations of West Africa. The rally attracted about $100 million in TV and advertising sponsorship, they said, a figure comparable to humanitarian aid given the countries, such as Mauritania, through which the rally passes. Complaints about the danger and cultural insensitivity reached such a pitch that the tally may well be cancelled next week.

Article extracted from this publication >> February 12, 1988