The meanest race on earth.jpg

The meanest race on earth


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The Euromillions Lisbon Dakar Rally – just the very mention of the rally inspires enthusiasm and excitement in some, yet provokes downright derision and anger in others.

The toughest and most controversial race on earth, the real life ‘Whacky Races’ is once again approaching and on January 5 will be ready for the off.

But how worthwhile is this ultimate motorised endurance test? Is it a question of just boys (and now girls) with toys, another big ego test, or is it good, clean, and safe competitive fun?

Certainly the annual car, truck and bike dash through North Africa’s Morocco and Mauritania is good news for the city of

Lisbon; and in terms of publicity puts the city on the map and directly promotes Lisbon’s image as a sporting and cultural centre well capable of organizing and hosting major international events.

One only has to think of a host of events held in Lisbon over the past decade: the UEFA 2004 European Football Cup championships, World Expo 98, Rock-in-Rio-Lisbon, which returns next year, the MTV Awards 2006, and the Seven New Wonders of the World, to name but a few.

But the international event pioneered by the French as the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1978 wasn’t deemed good news for the image of Paris which formerly hosted the event until 1995. The Mayor of Paris, acting on complaints from locals and environmental groups, was forced to move it from the Champs-Elysees to Euro Disney, resulting in the organizers having to change the starting point for the rally for some years.

One of the key organizers and main press spokesman at the Lisbon end of the operation, Rui Teixeira from New Communication, accepts that bringing such a massive event to Lisbon costs many hours of meticulous planning and millions of euros in investment.

“The costs are pretty high, and João Lagos Sports in the Algarve has analysed this question with a lot of care and attention, and it can be said the investment is millions but the returns and spin-offs in terms of both Portugal’s and Lisbon’s image and profile internationally is enormous, not only for sporting events but also tourism,” he says.

Rui Teixeira is unequivocal about the positive benefits the race has for the city and its media image. And there’s nothing quite like proving these benefits than by taking a quick glance at the statistics from an Economic Impact Study carried out in 2007.

The figures make impressive reading for Lisbon: 16 million euros direct investment return for the Lisbon Region, 270,000 spectators in the city, spending an estimated 13 million euros, 468 journalists and TV crews, spending around 320,000 euros, and 225 teams linked to the race forking out a further 133,000 euros.

Not only that, Portuguese organizers João Lagos Sports and ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) splashed out some 2.6 million euros in direct investment for the event.


Then there’s the impact in terms of publicity for the city worldwide and these numbers also leave no doubt as to the importance of the event for Portugal’s capital. The Lisbon-Dakar Euromillions Rally last year attracted a whopping million viewers in Europe and Portugal over the five days, of which 270,000 were watching in Lisbon and 700,000 viewers in the areas through which the event passed. Worldwide, though, the figures topped nearly nine million viewers.

Also not to be sniffed at is the 634 television hours transmitted in 185 countries worldwide, with 49 TV stations covering the event live, 29 stations featuring the rally on their news bulletin roundups, and a total of 68 hours of transmission from and about Lisbon and Portugal. It is also estimated that 45 per cent of the world’s print media covering the event mentioned Lisbon, Portugal and the Algarve in their articles.

One of the criticisms levelled at the event over the years is the number of tragic deaths, 45 recorded so far, as a result of the sport, both from among locals in Africa being knocked down and, of course, the number of actual participants losing their lives.

“I don’t think that people compete in Lisbon-Dakar Euromillions because of a sense of danger, actually there are other sports that one could say this of. I believe what motivates the participants is a sense of adventure, and a love of cross-country motoring, where the drivers experience the breathtaking scenery of the desert and other stunning landscapes in Northern Africa,” says Rui Teixeira.

Of course an event of this kind is bound to incur certain risks, but the event’s organizers are at pains to stress that they are learning from past mistakes and consistently work towards making the event as safe as possible.

“Safety and security has always been top of the list in the preparation of the Lisbon-Dakar Euromillions race. Amaury Sport Organization sends out various teams to monitor the routes, warn the locals and weed out possible dangers, well before the race even starts,” says Rui Teixeira.

This includes safety and information campaigns among the local villagers in the vicinity, while very strict rules govern participants driving to try and avoid accidents. For example, the speed of vehicles is restricted to 50 km/h along stretches which is monitored by GPS systems.

“No one dares risk breaking these rules and regulations without incurring the serious risk of stiff penalties. When it comes to environmental issues many vehicles use bio fuels and exhausts are adapted to produce less CO2 emissions. We know we’ve got environmental responsibilities in Africa and in terms of pollutants we’re no worse than the Formula One Grand Prix,” said Rui Teixeira.

Positive work

There has also been some criticism that the event does little for the local African peoples through which the rally passes. But the organization is at pains to stress that those shouting the loudest have no idea about the positive work being done by the organization in Africa.

“In 2002 our organization launched the Actions Dakar Programme in partnership with SOS Sahel. Its main concern is the preservation of natural resources in the areas as well as improving the conditions of life and hygiene of the local people in the territories through which the race passes,” explains Rui Teixeira.

Among the various initiatives Lisbon-Dakar Euromillions is directly involved in include sewerage systems, refuse disposal, and improved sustainable farming techniques. The campaign targets young villagers in school programmes, while 3,700 dwellings have already been improved or rebuilt, 1,070 parcels of agricultural land have been improved, protected and 136,000 trees have been planted to combat deforestation.

Additionally, since 2004 the Dakar Charitable Foundation has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in improving medical facilities and treatment in Mauritania, while seven hospitals have benefited from medical equipment thanks to the organization.

So far, this year’s event has 43 Portuguese team members signed up, 30 in the car, seven in the lorry and 19 in the bike categories and a further 4 on quads. Each team has to raise around 100,000 euros to enter, most from sponsorship, so it’s not a cheap sport by any means.

Even so, that doesn’t make it exclusive, with 80 per cent of participants being amateurs, with an increasing number of women on board.

“Being involved in Lisbon-Dakar Euromillions is tough on all concerned, but a woman who is well prepared and trained stands as much chance as the next man, if you’ll excuse the expression. We’ve had Joana Lemos in 1997 winning in the Ladies’ Category, and now we’re backing Elisabete Jacinto (lorry) and Maria Cupertino (car) representing Portugal and they’re both well able to give the other contestants a run for their money,” he said.

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