On meaning

Cycling is a beautiful sport. At its most artistic it is captivating and breathtaking. There is something about the juxtaposition of the machine, the suffering of the rider, and the backdrop of the outdoor stadiums that so utterly captivates us. Like any good entertainment, it appeals to us on a basic, emotional level. We allow ourselves to be swept along by the sheer visceral emotion of the experience – uplifting as well as tragic. Why, then, do we attempt to give pro cycle racing (and sport in general) a wider meaning, a moral significance?

What is life but a search for meaning: how did we get here, where are we going, what does it all mean? “The characteristic human need is for possession and appreciation of the meaning of things,” said philosopher John Dewey. We want things to be more than emotive experiences; we want them to have a context and a weight in human affairs. This is where ‘myth making’ comes in, which, according to Roland Barthes, is a particularly “bourgeois affliction”. All sports go through this process and the myths are usually genuine attempts to give gravitas to human endeavour. More often, though, they are cynical attempts at marketing. The Tour de France is replete with examples. In 1910, Henri Desgrange co-opted the local vernacular of “circle of death” for the inclusion of the Pyrenees and played up the reports of bears and wild animals that would make the stage an “epic” one. Never mind that, as Graham Robb argues in ‘The Discovery of France’, cyclo-tourists, and likely a bunch of locals, had been crossing the peaks for years. The Tour ride was epic as it was documented in black and white – how little times have changed.

Cycle racing started as a sport for the well-heeled before it was brought to the working class. Desgrange’s Tour de France was at first a marketing stunt, but then it took on political overtones – reforming the workers into respectable citizens through the labour of sport (not to mention unifying France for nationalistic purposes). “Suffering,” Desgrange apparently said to one of his riders, “is the full unfurling of willpower. Prove that you’re a man.” He may have rallied against the big manufacturers, but he was a conservative at heart and his sentiments lay firmly with the established social hierarchy, which was always receptive to the myths that the Tour was generating. And epic it stuff it was, too. When the Tour climbed the 1,178-metre Ballon  d’Alsace in 1905, Desgrange wrote that the ascent was “one of the most exciting events I have ever witnessed and confirms for the umpteenth time that human courage knows no limits and that a well-trained athlete is capable of the most incredible achievements.” As Benjo Masso notes in ‘The Sweat of the Gods’, no such lofty rhetoric accompanied the Col de la Republique – just 17 metres lower – in 1903. By 1905, as in 1910, new grandiosity was needed to fuel interest in the race.

Much of the myth making – then, but perhaps even more so now – fits a particular conception of Protestant laissez-faire capitalism: value and self-worth is achieved through hard work and suffering, in a competitive environment, with a sink or swim mentality. Success is equated with winning; competition builds character; heroism is defined by the ability to dig deeper and go harder than anyone else (this seems to be a particular affliction of Flemish Belgians and is the Anglo-Saxon mentality as well). Desgrange again, on the social value of sport: “Among the thousands who watch the Tour go by, how many are not untouched by the blessing of this sport and do not feel ashamed of the physical inactivity in their lives? How many resolve forcefully to begin a new life full of activity and struggle?” What is valuable, then, is action, work, and suffering. But this language is over a century old. Are we not past such pithy sentiments? Apparently not, at least from the pen of journalist Bruce Arthur on the retirement of Canadian triathlete and Olympic medallist Simon Whitfield: “As an athlete Simon Whitfield has vanished into the fog, but before he did he showed us possibility. He showed us that winning wasn’t everything, and that losing wasn’t, either. Hell of a Canadian. Hell of a man. He made us better.”

One might argue, as your author is doing here, that this process of ascribing meaning – and ultimately value – has two problems. Firstly, we give cycle racing (and sport in general) an outsize importance where it becomes a morality play of life lessons – particularly around hard work and sacrifice. For the riders themselves their only intention is probably to ride their bikes and earn a living – and achieving an ideal comes at a cost. “I started to see that being an athlete encouraged the most deplorable behaviour in people,” writes Charly Wegelius in ‘Domestique’. “In the real world a workaholic who ignored his family would be regarded as a piece of shit, and yet I saw that I was doing exactly the same thing while being revered by an adoring public.” And the attribution of heroism is misplaced. As Ken Dryden writes in ‘The Game’, “Blown up on a TV screen or a page of print, hyped by distance and imagination, we seem more heroic, the scope of our achievement seems grander, but it isn’t, and we’re not.”

Secondly, and this is a particular problem for cycling (although other sports are good examples, particularly those like football and hockey that have an outsize physical cost), that myth-making can serve to reinforce the economic status quo that is largely to the benefit of the established hierarchy (owners, administrators, organizers) and supports their own interests. Making suffering heroic distracts from the central issue of an exploitative system where financial fragility keeps all the racers ‘hungry’ for results and ensures a steady stream of young riders chasing their dreams and the tiny slices of the professional pie available for those that ‘make it’, with uncertain prospects once they retire and very little support from the sport once they leave it despite having devoted their best years to it. No wonder doping has been the norm rather than the exception. The sport is so hard, the training so all consuming (those exceptionally long races make no sense except to reinforce historical myths for marketing purposes and to ensure that riders are always training, training, training) that there is little time for the riders to organize and to co-operate for reforms to their benefit. It is compete to survive. As fans, this is what we applaud, despite having little inkling as to their working conditions. We profess moral outrage when the step outside the strict rules and regulations that are put in place for our edification.

Perhaps, dear reader, this is overstating the case. Is it too much of a stretch? But one cannot help but notice that sport occupies a curious place in human endeavours. Sports stars, like other entertainers, are celebrities, but also – most curiously – role models, although we might be reluctant to have our own children follow such prescribed and proscribed lives. Professional sports is surely just entertainment. It offers us no moral lessons and has less value than we think. Money and competition is at its heart, not sportsmanship or noble endeavour. To paraphrase George Orwell, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing [suffering].” Which might just describe why Lance Armstrong thrived in cycling.

Sport thrills and captivates us, but why do we want it to be something other than a spectacle? Italians have the notion of la bellezza or ‘the beauty’. According to Tom Southam, this is the “innate ability to remove themselves from a situation and take it in on a purely aesthetic level.” This may indeed be all the meaning that sport gives us. The Italians, for all they are criticized, may have got it exactly right. Cycling is art. Brutally and slavishly created. Compelling and enthralling. We can still be passionate about it, but it gives us nothing more.

Maybe Italians do have the answers to all the questions that cycling poses? (pic AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari)
Do Italians do have the answers to all the questions that cycling poses? (pic AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari)

One thought on “On meaning

  1. Well written, thoughtful piece. A similiar riff here, is cycling, or sport in general, art? No. Sure it is beautiful, surprising, shocking, controversial, disappointing and overrated, just like art. But as you say, there is no ulterior motive, no morality, no hidden meaning. Sport is about money. It is about winning. At any cost.

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