New Criticals

In their skepticism, all three writers departed from an important series of films and texts produced in the early sixties that looked more closely—and more optimistically—and sports. Roland Barthes, whose short meditations on wrestling and cycling were published in the mid-fifties and collected in Mythologies in 1957, devoted months to the script of a CBC documentary screened in 1961 as Le sport et les hommes. The work is largely unknown; the script wasn’t even published in Le Seuil’s five-volume collection of Barthes’ works. It took until 2007 for an English translation to be made. Mostly composed of found footage, the film examines bullfighting, car racing, cycling, hockey, and soccer. True to form, Barthes dissected the symbols pervading each sport. But, just as he’d prefaced Mythologies by deploring the inadequacies of “demystification” as a political strategy, Barthes saw something more complex at play. He concluded the script thus: “Why this useless combat? What is sport? What is it then that men put into sport? Themselves, their human universe. Sport is made in order to speak the human contract.”

A year later, French filmmaker Louis Malle’s short documentary Vive le Tour tracked the 1962 Tour de France. It’s a tender love-letter to the sport of competitive cycling and the infrastructure that makes it possible. Racers piss on country roads, villages come to life with fans, nuns cheer, monks snap photos, popsicles and cold beers are passed from bike to bike. An army of French spectators pushes riders up mountains, tosses them water bottles, stuffs newspapers down their skintight shirts as temperatures drop. As the narrator drily remarks, “some spectators end up more exhausted than the racers.”