Beauty is not the goal

Lucho Herrera, Tour de France 1991 (Photo: Rod MacFadyen, who I interviewed about these pictures last year)

In a recent conversation I had about sports writing, particularly within the realm of cycling, a well-known essay about Tennis (Roger Federer's playing in particular) by David Foster Wallace came up. It's one I had read before, after being urged to do so by several people within the course of a month or so. But after this recent conversation, I had to revisit it. Upon doing so, I noticed one passage in particular that I think applies perfectly to cycling, and I share it with you in light of my last post about the changes in cycling, and about attempting to regress to an earlier time. For Wallace, it would appear, the sheer beauty of sport was what drew him in, and kept him engaged.

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.¹

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

¹: There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.
Steven Rooks, Tour de France 1991 (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)
Laurent Fignon, Tour de France 1991 (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)