Off the coast of Africa is the large island of Madagascar, further off the coast of that island is another island by the name of Reunion. Unlike Madagascar, Reunion Island is extremely small. To put it in perspective for North Americans, it is 75% the size of Rhode Island. To give a European example, it is virtually identical in size to Luxembourg. Small in size and geographically isolated, this tiny island has produced seven Olympic gymnasts since 1992.
Its population of 850,000 is relatively large for an island in the middle of an ocean, but incredibly small for a place that makes producing Olympic gymnasts look easy and routine. Reunion may be in Africa, but it is sovereign French territory. Athletes from Reunion compete for spots on the French National Team in the same way gymnasts from Hawaii compete for the United States.
This small French island that competes alongside the likes of Paris has been so successful in producing Olympic gymnasts, that every Olympics from 1992-2004 had either a male or female gymnast from Reunion Island. At the 2000 Olympics alone there were five gymnasts from Reunion, three on the women’s team (50%) and two on the men’s team (33%). The most recent example was Marine Boyer who represented France at the 2016 Olympics.
Even more surprisingly, 31% of all Olympians born on Reunion Island were gymnasts. Reunion Island appears to be the birthplace of gymnasts at a rate disproportionate relative to other Olympic sports. Below are the seven Olympic gymnasts who were born on Reunion Island.
|Patrice Casimir||Male||1992 & 1996|
|Florent Maree||Male||2000 & 2004|
|Elvire Teza||Female||1996 & 2000|
This is not to say that every one of these gymnasts trained in Reunion. For most of them, they were simply born in Reunion and many of them spent most of their lives in mainland Europe. The continent of Africa is woefully underrepresented in the Olympic medal count. Africa has won just 2% of all Olympic medals despite possessing 16% of the global population. The success of Reunion Island proves that the continent is rich with athletic talent, but opportunity to utilize it is lacking.
Reunion Island is an example of African success, but there is also a racial component to this story. The existence of Reunion has created a condition where prominent black athletes from France are mislabeled. Just because a gymnast is black, that doesn’t automatically mean he or she is from Reunion Island.
It is not uncommon for black French athletes to be incorrectly associated with Reunion Island. For the French athletes who have experienced this, it can be both insulting and painful to hear. It means people are automatically assuming that because of the color of their skin, they must not be from Europe. In doing so, it undercuts the existence of black families who came to France as immigrants, but have lived in Europe for multiple generations. Producing children and grandchildren who have as much of a European upbringing as your typical white French citizen.
The most high profile example of a prominent black athlete being incorrectly associated with Reunion Island is figure skater Surya Bonaly, she was born in Europe. As for Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos, she was born in Martinique, another French island located in the Caribbean. Even though Martinique has produced twice as many Olympians as Reunion, it has never produced an Olympic gymnast. Proving the point that Reunion is a statistical anomaly in the way it is the birthplace of so many Olympic gymnasts.
But while Martinique is about to get its first ever Olympic gymnast in 2021, Marine Boyer is already Reunion Island’s 7th Olympic gymnast. If Boyer makes the 2021 Olympic team, she will be Reunion’s fourth 2x Olympian in gymnastics. It will also mark the 11th time a gymnast from Reunion Island will compete in the Olympics. Something that is rare for other French islands, but for Reunion, it is the little island that produces Olympic gymnasts over and over again.