Sport as spectacle

Our guide to all things philosophical about sport, Roland Barthes, wrote that: “[Professional] wrestling is not sport, it is a spectacle.” As Barthes has written elsewhere, though, sport always has an element of spectacle – what otherwise would so completely capture our imaginations?

Cycling, of course, is full of spectacle. The Tour de France, for example, is like the world’s largest carnival, a procession of brightly-coloured performers, attended to by a host of extraneous entertainment (the publicity caravan, the ceremonies, the podium girls, the hoards of journalists and manic fans), wowing us with feats of strength and endurance. Some see the spectacle of cycling as akin to rock ‘n’ roll, and we might call this the ‘Johnny Green’ theory of cycling, so named after the writer (and former road manager for The Clash) of the same name. Green not so much forgives the excesses of cycling but suggests that they are in keeping with a sport that is infused with a rock ‘n’ roll ethos of pushing the boundaries in all aspects.

The spectacle of cycling appeals to us at a basic emotional level. Think of Floyd Landis torching the peloton during his mountain escape in the 2006 Tour de France, possibly the greatest single-day exploit in the Tour in recent memory, or Marco Pantani sprinting in the drops up Alpe d’Huez in 1997, riding so fast that commentators were lost for superlatives. Such spectacle gives us an immediate and visceral response. Might we then tolerate the excesses of cycling (particularly doping) simply if it provides us with a spectacle? Is cycling simply rock ‘n’ roll?

The role of rules
Rock ‘n’ roll has at its heart a disdain for the rules. The best music produced in the last half-century, for example, has been typically about breaking the rules of expectations. Think of Nirvana’s album ‘Nevermind’, twenty years old this September, an album so left field of expectations that it forced the music industry to take notice simply because of its popularity. It was a spectacle created without reference to established rules and norms. In place of ‘Nevermind’, one could easily substitute a long list of albums that broke the rules, defied expectations, and became classics.

But sport, including cycling, is thick with rules. Rules and regulations are an integral part of every game or every event; they are detailed, meticulous, and might even seem restrictive or petty. But the rules give an event its context. According to the French author Paul Yonnet, one of the elements of sport is the ‘tension’ that is exacerbated by “la stricte égalité des parties”, the equality of the competitors. Rules that contribute to this equality enhance the tension. For example, we might enhance the spectacle of cycling by giving certain riders an advantage such as a lighter bike for key mountain stages, or a disadvantage by taking away a teammate from the yellow jersey wearer’s team. Surely there would be much excitement by such an intervention.

Strict equality between cyclists is impossible, of course, but it is obvious that making rules universal for all the riders does increase the tension of the competition. Doping is an affront to this goal simply because it erodes that equality. It is easy to see, looking back, that while doped-up riders provided a performance spectacle, the overall effect was one of inequality that ultimately eroded the exciting tension between relatively evenly-matched riders competing over the same course under the same rules and conditions. Physiology, training, tactics, and endurance have proved to provide more tension than the competition between pharmacology.

What makes Alpe d'Huez more than just a mountain?

How structure gives meaning
Rules can go even further than promoting equality. According to the philosopher Bernard Suits, sport (or ‘games’ as he calls it) must have three properties: a ‘pre-lusory goal’, constitutive rules, and the ‘lusory attitude’. A pre-lusory goal is the goal of the competition; in the cycling context, this is the goal of being the rider to complete the course in the fastest time. The constitutive rules are all the regulations that govern such an event and define how the goal is to be achieved (and to stop riders from achieving the goal by some other means, like taking the train). The lusory attitude is the attitude adopted by competitors and spectators alike; everyone accepts the rules because they enhance the spirit – and the meaning – of the game.

We accept the rules, and as fans we likely want the riders to accept the rules as well, because they define the sport. They give cycling meaning and context, and make some kind of order out of the chaos that the pro peloton could otherwise create. The rules create a framework for winning, for judging and comparing performances, and for making historical comparisons and maintaining the continuity of the sport. The rules and regulations keep changing to fit the temper of the times, but they are tinkered with rather than revised wholesale. The route of the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix changes from year-to-year, but there are certain conventions that are followed (the Tour loops roughly around France and includes both the Pyrenees and the Alps; Paris-Roubaix finishes in the velodrome and includes cobbles – it would not do to add bergs and smooth pavement); these give context and continuity to the races year after year.

At the individual rider level, the rules help with establishing a hierarchy that we as fans use to make sense of the results we see, of the progress of riders year over year, and of making comparisons over the decades. If we know that riders are following the rules, we can judge the relative merits of performances. We can see Mark Cavendish becoming world champion in Copenhagen as the continuation of a string of stellar rides by the sprinter of his generation; we can see Tony Martin’s time trial win at the same event as the passing of the torch; we can see Thomas Voeckler’s yellow jersey defence at the Tour as the performance of a plucky underdog; we can see Philippe Gilbert’s 2011 season as the realisation of a massive talent nurtured throughout his apprenticeship.

Which is why the era of blood doping (that is seemingly now waning) completely turned the meaning of cycling on its head. Results lost their context as previously unheralded riders raced to the top steps of the podiums, past champions sank in a miasma of mediocrity, whole teams swept races largely uncontested, and a whole generation of riders trying to ride clean struggled to make the second page of the results sheets despite their talents. There was plenty of spectacle, of that we can be sure, but the plethora of asterisks against the results from that era mean that they have no context – comparisons over time are meaningless, and even now trying to work out who actually ‘won’ a race is a frustrating and fruitless exercise.

The moral dimension
As fans, even if we adopt a devil-may-care attitude to some of the infractions of the rules in cycling, at some level we have (or need) to adopt the lusory attitude. We might support a tinkering with the regulations, in the interests of fairness, safety, or for the evolution of the sport, for example, but we support the concept of having rules in the first place. Without them the sport that we support simply becomes diluted, it reverts to a spectacle that has a short-term emotive appeal but lacks a long-term context.

Without that context, and without that tension between the riders, cycling is stripped of its morality – its uplifting properties. Therefore, the rules help transcend the basic concept of cycling – highly trained and skilled athletes competing against each other over a fixed route under certain conditions – and make it into something else. As Barthes writes: “Muscle does not make the sport… Muscle, however precious, is never anything more than raw material. It is not muscle that wins. What wins is a certain idea of man and of the world, of man in the world. This idea is that man is fully defined by his action, and man’s action is not to dominate other men, it is to dominate things.”

To follow on from Barthes’ concept, this is what we might call the moral dimension of cycling. Racers can conquer adversity, the challenges that the nature of the route throws at them, the vagaries of the wind and weather, and they can overcome self-doubt and cruel twists of fate. These are the ‘things’ that men (and women, for that matter) can dominate. The domination of the high mountains, or the cruel cobbles, or the wind-swept plains, or the steep Belgian bergs is facilitated by all the rules and regulations that govern cycle races. They make the ‘certain idea’ possible and make cycle racing what it is. This allows cycling to be something greater than the sum of racers just riding bikes, to reach beyond just spectacle. To give meaning to the mundane and the majestic.

Sometimes cycling is simply sublime

2 thoughts on “Sport as spectacle

  1. Recently came across your site and thoroughly enjoy your thoughtful writing. Do you recommend any particular Barthes? Now that cooler weather is here, there is more time for actual reading. Where does your quote come from? Ahhh, the footnote…Thanks for your site, it’s fab.

  2. Barthes’ famous essay, The Tour de France as Epic, is in the English in ‘The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies’. Thanks for reading!

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