ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has brought a surge of creative energy into sports documentaries. A scholar of this genre of documentary film looks at British filmmaker John Dower’s contribution to the series, Slaying the Badger (2014), as an example of what the sports documentary can accomplish – a film that presents an intimate portrait of friends and rivals as well as the broader picture of a sporting event at a historical crossroads.
One of the more welcome consequences of Lance Armstrong’s sudden fall has been a long-overdue reconsideration of America’s first and now only officially recognised winner of the Tour de France, Greg LeMond. After winning professional road cycling’s most coveted prize three times between 1986 and 1990, LeMond’s achievements in the sport and influence on a generation of American professional cyclists that followed in the Californian’s slipstream cannot be underestimated – nor have they been surpassed. There is nonetheless a sense that he remained, until recently, a peripheral sporting figure both in the United States and within Europe’s elite cycling’s international circles.
With the benefit of historical hindsight, LeMond’s circumstance is not so surprising as it may seem on first glance. LeMond had found it increasingly difficult in the final years of his career to successfully compete amongst the very best of the international elite peloton and retired from professional cycling in 1994, aged thirty-three. Although there were some health factors – an unfortunate hunting accident after the 1986 Tour had kept him out of the sport for over a year and then later he was diagnosed with muscle disease mitochondrial myopathies – this was no ordinary decline of an athlete’s career. Today, it is common knowledge that much of professional cycling from the early 1990s onwards had become entrenched within a systemic doping culture, which dramatically enhanced the endurance capacities of riders through the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as erythropoietin (EPO). As a consequence, the hierarchy within the elite peloton also changed during this period. For those riders and teams willing to utilise EPO and other advances in doping, such illicit activities were met with tacit acceptance by many within the sport, if not openly condoned. An omertà, or code of silence, became the order of the day.
From the perspective of an avowed anti-doping advocate like LeMond, the future of the sport undoubtedly looked bleak, and the rise of also-rans into Grand Tour-contenders hastened his decision to step away from competing. LeMond stated elsewhere that even he was encouraged to dope toward the end of his career. But his personal revulsion of doping’s corruption of sport and the tragedy it could bring made this an unthinkable option.
Four years after LeMond’s retirement the dark secrets of professional cycling were exposed when Festina’s team soigneur Willy Voet was stopped by customs officers at the Belgian-French border near Lille with a huge cache of EPO, anabolic steroids, and other doping substances. The subsequent expulsion of the Festina team by the Union Cycliste International (UCI) and the numerous police raids, criminal investigations, and convictions that followed would continue to plague professional cycling for the next two decades. Eventually, this trail resulted in Armstrong’s life ban and the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles. Given the extent to which Armstrong went in discrediting LeMond’s reputation during this period (seemingly in response to LeMond’s prescient public remarks about the legitimacy of Armstrong’s third successive Tour victory in 2001 and the nature of his contentious relationship with Italian trainer Dr. Michele Ferrari), there is a sense of justice in the renewed attention to LeMond.
In the midst of the avalanche of films and books dissecting the carcass of Armstrong’s career – such as director Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie (2013) and New York Times journalist Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies (2014) – ESPN 30 for 30 released the documentary Slaying the Badger, about the career of LeMond. Adapted from Richard Moore’s superlative book of the same name, Slaying the Badger is predominately a biographical profile of LeMond and his sporting relationship with Frenchman and five-time winner of the Tour de France, Bernard Hinault. The film’s director, John Dower, has an impressive pedigree when it comes to sports documentaries. His previous credits include Once in A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006) and Thrilla in Manila (2008). Dower’s documentary about LeMond maps the cyclist’s rites-of-passage from prodigious talent (winning the Junior World road race in 1979 at the age of 16) and recruitment by the French Renault-Elf-Gitane cycling team in 1980 to becoming the preeminent American cyclist of his generation – a fact cemented by cycling’s first million-dollar contract, with Bernard Tapie’s La Vie Claire team in 1985.
Throughout the documentary, various figures from LeMond’s career reflect upon the cyclist’s sporting journey. LeMond and his wife Kathy are interviewed at their home in Minnesota; Hinault is interviewed at a restaurant in Picardy and ably translated by French journalist Francois Thomazeau; La Via Clare team directeur sportif Paul Koechil holds court from his Swiss training camp; and former teammate Andy Hampstead reflects on their time amongst the first few Americans on the European circuit. These interviews are augmented by contributions from others with first-hand knowledge of professional cycling, including British sport commentator Phil Liggett and American cycling journalist Samuel Abt. Together, these interviews provide revealing insights and aid in the contextualisation of LeMond’s achievements and their significance to professional cycling.
The dramatic force of the documentary centres on the relationship between Bernard Hinault and LeMond. Hinault had an important role in LeMond’s emersion into the culture of French cycling and development as a professional, acting both as friend and mentor at Renault and later as team-leader at La Vie Claire. The friendship turned into an intense competitive rivalry during the 1986 Tour de France, with the younger American from the Sierra Nevada against the elder statesman of Europe’s elite cycling circuit. Hinault is the documentary’s titular badger. The origins of the nickname (le blaireau) are uncertain, but many would agree it is an appropriate moniker for a professional cyclist renowned for an aggressive riding style, ferocious attitude, and immovable mental fortitude. Hinault own thoughts sum up the name perfectly: “If you hit a badger in the face with a spade, it just chews it.”
Of course, such depictions of sporting conflict are a common narrative concern within the sports documentary subgenre. What is remarkable about Slaying the Badger, however – and the reason its revelations about the internal dynamics of the professional team are so revealing – is that both LeMond and Hinault were riding for the same cycling team. The background to their rivalry has been accounted for elsewhere and is now the stuff of cycling folklore. In short, LeMond’s support of Hinault in the 1985 Tour effectively secured the Frenchman his fifth title, with many commentators of the opinion that LeMond was undoubtedly the stronger rider and sacrificed his own chance of victory for his teammate. In return, Hinault made a very public pronouncement to support LeMond’s challenge the following year.
Yet as each stage of the ‘86 Tour progressed, it became increasingly difficult for LeMond to reconcile Hinault’s previous promise with his actions in the race. The Frenchman attacked at every opportunity and frequently made temporary allegiances with opposing teams to maintain an advantage over his teammate. Unsurprisingly, the impact on LeMond was dispiriting and highly detrimental to his overall chances. For instance, LeMond was evidently distressed in NBC television interviews at the time, even appearing close to some kind of psychological meltdown. This state of affairs was seemingly engendered by directeur sportif Paul Koechil’s incongruous decision to impose a “no team leader” stratagem and his repeated complaints that “Greg never attacks.”
Slaying the Badger examines the fractured nature of LeMond and Hinault’s relationship by employing tropes similar to those established in Dower’s previous films. His approach, which explores the historicity of twentieth-century sporting culture via a synchronic approach to documentary form, involves isolating a significant sporting event and then extrapolating its various strands of meaning in order to suture together a cohesive narrative whole. In this instance, the event is the eighteenth stage of the ’86 Tour, which traversed a mountainous 101 miles from Briançon to the Alpine village of L’Alpe d’Huez. As the documentary explains, the famous mountain-top finish to the stage was pivotal to the overall outcome of the race – with its torturous final 3670 ft of ascent in 8.89 miles vividly embodying the epic struggle between the two teammates. At this stage, LeMond led his rival in the general classification for the first time, finishing ahead of Hinault on the previous day’s stage to gain the maillot jaune. Hence, as the final mountain stage, L’Alpe d’Huez represented the last opportunity for Hinault to regain the lead before the remaining flat four stages of the Tour – stages where, with the exception of a time trial, little of any deficit can be recouped.
The documentary further foregrounds the importance of the stage through contributions from various talking heads and on-screen subtitles. Together these features provide a brief contextualization of the L’Alpe d’Huez and its importance to the Tour’s historical legacy. They also neatly preface archival footage of the battle between LeMond and Hinault broadcast on European television. The documentary shows that as the stage develops, Hinault makes a decisive move and attacks aggressively on the descent of the notorious mountain road of Col de Galibier but is eventually caught by LeMond on the ascent of Col du Croix de Fer. Rather than race away from Hinault, LeMond instead continues to ride at the same pace behind him. When the two men eventually near the finish line atop the mountain village of L’Alpe d’Huez, the American propels himself alongside his adversary and affectionately pats him on the back. Hinault turns and smiles. Then, in unison, they clasp one another’s hand and raise their arms aloft in a triumphant salute, with LeMond seemingly allowing Hinault to ride a few centimetres ahead in order to claim the stage victory.
The documentary dissects the meanings of this scene by juxtaposing the archival footage with interviews with people present at the stage. Each advances a different interpretation, ranging from a reading of the scene as a symbolic act of sporting reconciliation to that of a cynical media ploy orchestrated by team owner Bernard Tapie. However, rather than bringing a sense of resolution, the finale of the stage only exposes the cracks in LeMond and Hinault’s relationship. The teammates appear on French television soon after the conclusion of the stage, and Hinault is asked by interviewer Jacques Chancel whether he is “still able to win the race.” Hinault is both uncompromising and unmagnanimous in his assessment. “The Tour is not finished,” he states, “there could very well be a crash. He [LeMond] could very easily fall sick.” An astounded LeMond, clearly referring to the agreement struck with Hinault at the end of the previous Tour, protests: “I could have attacked last year!” Feeling simultaneously confused and betrayed, he concludes, “I don’t know what to do.” Hinault is quick to respond, “It’s a sporting war. It’s a sporting war.” It was indeed a war until the end. LeMond’s increasing paranoia (“80% of the peloton want Hinault to win,” he says at one point) was only abated four days later when he finished in Paris wearing the maillot jaune, becoming the first non-European to triumph at the Tour de France.
Slaying the Badger is an enthralling film, brilliantly realised and constantly engaging. There are nevertheless opportunities for further exposition that are left unrealised. These aspects are not necessarily about LeMond or Hinault, but concern professional cycling’s position within the wider milieu of international sport. For instance, the unresolved frictions in LeMond and Hinault’s relationship serve as a useful synecdoche for the transformation of the Tour from parochial road race to its present-day status as the most globally significant annual sporting event. Today, Hinault remains France’s last winner of the Tour de France – something that was inconceivable at the time of his retirement. Since 1986, the race has witnessed two periods of American dominance (the second now unceremoniously expunged from its annals) and withstood almost two decades of doping scandals. The Tour itself has also undergone radical transformation during this period. In particular, the Société du Tour de France has adopted economic models synonymous with the corporate culture of American sports and media industries.
While it may be unfair to expect Slaying the Badger to devote valuable screen time to these broader issues, there were other compelling intersections between American and French sporting cultures at the 1986 Tour. Alongside LeMond’s victory, the inclusion of the US-based 7-Eleven professional team that year was arguably of equal significance in North America. Riders from this team even won two stages: Canadian Alex Stieda became the first North American to wear the maillot jaune after securing a series of time bonuses on the second stage of the race, and American Davis Phinney won stage three the next day. Further signs of the Tour’s increasing penetration of the American cultural imaginary were the nightly coverage on NBC Nightly News and the attendance of a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine. In the end, however, it would be Armstrong and other members of the now disgraced US Postal Team, rather than this first group of Americans, who reaped the financial rewards of the Tour de France. With Dower’s documentary, there is at least some recompense for the previous underrepresentation of these trailblazers of American professional cycling within the wider narrative of the sport’s history.
Slaying the Badger’s account of LeMond and Hinault’s relationship is testimony to what the subgenre of sports documentary can achieve. Moreover, since its launch in 2009 the ESPN 30 by 30 series has also made a significant contribution to sport’s status within documentary filmmaking genres, with its admixture of prestige programming, cinematic production values, and auteur directorial approaches (which often bely the channel’s televisual status). In the case of Slaying the Badger, the series offers up critical insight into the construction of sporting communities within both national and international contexts. The seeming incompatibility between LeMond’s and Hinault’s personalities in 1986 illustrates a Tour that was itself in flux. For a French public accustomed to multi-Tour winning champions, the usurping of Hinault by the first non-European winner was at the time an anomaly. He and previous French victors – such as Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, and Bernard Thévenet – were resolutely bound to the Tour’s symbolism of a unified national identity represented in the geographical contours of the route’s La Grand Boucle (Great Loop). Now, thirty years and counting since the last French winner, LeMond’s victory can be understood as prophetic. Hence, the culture clash captured in Dower’s film not only reveals the internal dynamics of the peloton but also tells us something about the confluence of sporting cultural capital, bearing witness to the transition of a once quintessentially French event into a truly global spectacle.
Colin Howley is assistant professor of English and communication studies at Richmond, The American International University in London. He does research on topics related to sport, music, and masculinity, and he teaches courses on sports documentaries.