New Criticals

Finally, Tony Richardson’s seminal 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner took up sports as a privileged site of class conflict in post-war England. Working-class teenagers labor in a boys’ reformatory. The genteel governor marshals his charges for a cross-country competition against an elite public school, pinning his hopes on the talented, rebellious Colin Smith. The film depicts both the crushing poverty of industrial Nottingham and the grim trappings of a carceral regime. At the climax, the race between the prisoners and the privileged, Colin leads the way before halting at the finish line in a triumphant gesture of resistance and staring down the governor. He sizes up the means by which athletes can transform their arenas from spaces of control into spaces of impassioned protest.

If sporting contests are part of a continuum of politically meaningful “tests” (as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello argue convincingly in Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme), they can be critiqued either correctively or radically. That is to say, the features which confer unfair advantages on some over others can be laid bare and picked over; or their very ends can be called into question. Richardson’s film does both, as did real-life athletes throughout the sixties. By the late sixties, Muhammad Ali’s increasingly militant speech skewered the spectacle more effectively than Debord or Eco might credit.

These films do a better job of confronting the lived reality of athletics, attending to the aesthetic and political potential of sports. They offer a richer set of examples for understanding the charged world of sporting discourse today, one in which NBA players support the #BlackLivesMatter movement at games and college amateurs win progressively larger battles to better their lot. As Malcolm X wrote of Ali, “I suspected there was a plan in his public clowning.”