Reporting the facts, a recent idea

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A lot of of the journalism is quite bloggy, opinions rather than facts, and riders try to get in the results to impress those journalists. It’s like when you were an amateur and you had to prove yourself all the time to become professional. Nowadays, it’s like that in the professionals, too.

So said Mark Cavendish in a pre-Tour press conference in London last week. I’d listened to the Real Peloton podcast and heard the quote – amongst the audio interference – and thought his observations on the media were some of the more interesting things from a session that, via the recording at least, sounded a bit dull.

Although interesting to see Cavendish is aware enough to review the media, I didn’t think the point was worth commenting on. But against this there is a small point to make: cycling has a long tradition of lyrical and colourful race reporting. Indeed many reports have been works of fiction.

This year’s Tour de France celebrates the passage of the race over the Col du Galibier 100 years ago. Here’s race organiser and journalist Henri Desgrange:

Haven’t they got wings, our men who have been able to climb up to heights where even eagles don’t fly? Oh Sappey, Oh Laffrey, Oh Col Bayard, Oh Tourmalet! I shall not fail in my duty to proclaim to the world that you are like an insignificant and small beer compared to the Galibier: all one can do before this giant is doff one’s hat and bow.

I suspect you’ll get that quote a few more times in July. Note the romanticism of the words, Desgrange isn’t describing facts like the gradient or the length, he’s eulogising. Even today the Tour de France measures climbs with a scheme that ranks the ascension by difficulty, going from the easy fourth category climbs to the toughest hors catégorie climbs, meaning “beyond categorisation”. Note the Spinal Tap style linguistic inflation here, they could just as well have categories going from 5 up to 1. But no, the climbs are so tough that they are beyond rational description.

Indeed in the early years of the sport race reports in newspapers like L’Auto, La Gazzetta and L’Equipe were florid accounts… and at times fictional. Watch a race today and often – admit it – you can fall asleep in front of the TV sometimes. Root out a copy of L’Equipe from the 1950s and even the most dull stages were written with beaucoup hyperbole. Don’t forget this was an age before TV so nobody actually saw the race from start to finish, leaving journalists with a blank page.

Antoine Blondin

Antoine Blondin, creator of myths

Desgranges was talking his book, hyping up the race in order to sell copies of his newspaper. But this tradition continued for a long time. French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about the Tour de France. But perhaps the greatest storyteller of the Tour de France was Antoine Blondin. He was more than a sports journalist, you could describe him as a novelist, politically engaged… and a drunkard too. But his pieces in L’Equipe were often daily gems. Here’s Bernard Hinault on Blondin, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The most banal event becomes significant to Blondin; he has only to see it and write about it. He raised the status of the Tour by giving it his own cachet; it became a myth to be renewed every year. No matter how predictable the race, he could maintain the interest in it.”

Blondin probably merits a whole post on here for himself, if not several accounts for his writing. By contrast today’s race reporting pretty factual. For sure a race report is not a forensic account, nobody can interview every rider and then cross-examine their post race testimony until a perfect account is written. But TV images do ensure we all see most of what happens and as such accounts today of races are pretty matter of fact.

Cavendish could be right, maybe riders are increasingly fighting to get noticed? Maybe race reports express an opinion on events that doesn’t tally with a rider’s experience.

But for half a century the sport tolerated fictional accounts precisely because journalists could turn a rider into a hero with their pen or typewriter. The public was usually none the wiser because nobody could follow a race or a stage in its entirety before television arrived.

Even in recent times the press room might have collectively suspected a rider of cheating but editorial pressures ensured few doubts were aired. That’s largely changed now, for better or worse and for me, the race reporting I read seems pretty factual. Nobody can invent things these days.

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Kieron Yates June 29, 2011 at 12:14 am

As ever an interesting view.

I think Cav is partly right. But what I see happening , particularly with anglophone teams, is PR boosting of any performance that makes top ten.

Nice to see the mention of Blondin as my French teacher raised his name whilst were reading piece about Voekler in last Saturday’s Equipe mag. Any recommendations for reading?

Clay Glad June 29, 2011 at 12:45 am

Americans of my (advanced) age will remember when John Tesh covered the Tour by making it seem to be an event contested by mythological characters in slow motion, not even a sporting event.

Gillis June 29, 2011 at 1:28 am

On Clay’s note: I remember the days of watching the Tour on ESPN and ABC. The broadcast was 30 minutes each day (an hour on special days) and never live. You had Tesh, Liggett, Sherwen and a few others doing commentary and review.

At the time that 30 minutes was never enough for me. On the most dramatic stages there was never enough time to tell the story. I craved for so much more. BUT for the most part because it wasn’t live they had time to edit and re-edit to tell a proper story and see all the most exciting moments.

Today we have hours upon hours of live coverage. Its too much! I admit, as you say, having fallen asleep during a stage or three. Watching the race progress and seeing the French country side is great, but only for so long. So now they fill it up with long digital transitions between segments, tech stories about the bikes (to appeal to the less informed masses), sound bites from the day before, and occasionally a bit of history. But that gets boring after the first week.

I realize now those 30 minute (2o minute, after all the commercials) daily reports were the best. Why? because more isn’t better! They fit in only what was necessary to make it fun, exciting and interesting.

Oliver June 29, 2011 at 2:14 am

A quick point: Roland Barthes was not, is not a philosopher. The Robert 2 describes him as a critic and “semiologue”, that’s good enough for me I suppose (a critic and semiologue is to a philosopher what a domestique is to a GT winner if you like analogies which may or may not work) . Barthes’ stuff on the Tour was also about the hyperbole actually, the notion that language has “traces” clues to where the writer is coming from, etc. Sartre came up with that before him with a more social bent of course, but that’s another story…

martin June 29, 2011 at 6:53 am

I thought cavs conference was quite good and and like the fact that he does not seem to surround himself with PR Guru’s. I think cycling journalism is a bit poor and do believe that a lot of them chose to ignore doping when it was convenient to do so and now it isn’t, talk about it all the time. Even in this writing you write that the conference ” sounded a bit dull” Try not asking him the same questions and may be you will get difference andmore exciting answers. I agree some riders are very good at the PR as are the teams and do get publicity for average results

An example of not writing the facts, last week in an article it mentioned about Cav joining sky and that at 13 he befriended David Millar. The fact is he simply had is photo with him as many fans do.

Anonymous June 29, 2011 at 10:03 am

“I thought cavs conference was quite good and and like the fact that he does not seem to surround himself with PR Guru’s. ”

Except when using Team PR to operate his twitter account…….

bikecellar June 29, 2011 at 10:25 am

It must be very difficult to be a cycling journalist nowadays, re suspect performances, go “over the top” in hyping up a performance and later facts can destroy what has been said or written.

Martin June 29, 2011 at 10:38 am

The title is “Reporting the facts”

Matthew Taber June 29, 2011 at 11:30 am

The historic practice of deifying riders led to the creation of the myths surrounding riders such as Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx etc. As you say, no one was able to watch the race from start to finish so wouldn’t see what they got up to and did in a race. People bemoan the modern riders as having no personality etc and being bland, but because we see the whole race and journalism is more factual (on the whole!) these days rather than beautiful prose eulogy, the whole thing becomes a little devoid of the romance. Maybe this is one of the reasons why publications such as Rouleur have a cache to them. Personally I find the romanticism a bit over the top on the whole, but occasionally it’s good to have. So, in conclusion, I’d say that I like a bit of both on balance.

Alex Murray - Chasing Wheels June 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I thought the most interesting bit (my iPod crashed halfway through) was what he was saying about every race now being like a junior race as everyone has something to prove and is desperate to win that next contract with a result that gets them noticed.

That says to me that the market for riders is either getting more competitive or shrinking; or both. It’s been getting more competitive since the arrival of the Eastern Bloc riders in the 1990s and the anglophone riders in a series of waves. With teams merging and sponsors hard to come by, that says to me that there’s some market contraction going on which is affecting the way races play out.

Stephen Baillie June 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Fact or Urban Myth:

I read that the classification of mountain stages in TdF was based on whether it was possible to drive a car up (back in the 1920s ?).
So for example, 3rd gear = 3 cat, 2nd gear = 2 cat, 1st gear = 1 cat, and if the car couldnt go up, then it was HC.

I’d like to believe that was true.

Oliver June 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

How about some praxis?
Reporting the facts: (1) doping in cycling is more prevalent than ever and still (2) no one wants to believe it. See Omega-Pharma. See the press parroting Wim’s fairy tales with no counterpoint…

Breakaway artist June 29, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Pour ma part, je préfère de loin le journalisme cycliste de L’Équipe par exemple, qui, s’il ne fait plus dans la fiction, se permet néanmoins l’utilisation d’une langue riche, imagée, savoureuse afin de décrire les enjeux d’une course, d’une étape du Tour.

Je suis en faveur d’un journalisme qui fait usage des hyperboles, des possibilités créatives qu’une langue telle que le français permet, tout en restant fidèle aux faits. Voilà, faut-il aussi mettre un peu de poésie dans la description!

En revanche, le journalisme anglo-saxon, qu’il soit britannique ou américain, est d’un ennui certain, se limitant à un style descriptif, sans les fioritures qui donnent vie à la course sur papier.

Mais, j’ose croire que le pire du journalisme est ce type ‘Informercial’ où on ne sait plus trop s’il s’agit de promotion commerciale ou de journalisme tant parfois il est difficile de le détecter. Le danger est que cela semble être une pratique de plus en plus courante dans le journalisme cycliste. Le site web est un exemple flagrant de brouillage entre intérêts commerciaux et journalisme où des articles bidons servant à promouvoir une équipe, une marque (ces temps-ci Team Sky et ses vélos) sont insérées dans le flux des articles sans caractère promotionnel. Là est le réel danger à mon avis… Est-ce là la nouvelle fiction???

The Inner Ring June 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Stephen Baillie: myth! I’ll return to the categories soon some day I hope.

Breakaway artist: thanks and I’ll be reading Philippe Brunel in L’Equipe for the same reasons. I think most people can spot the “informercial” articles pretty quickly, my eyes tend to glaze over. At least it is obvious, sometimes people are paid to advertise things but it’s not declared.

Beth June 29, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Breakaway Artist: Glad to see French commentary IN French. Since I can actually read and understand it, I love it!

Oliver June 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm

@BA: Pour moi (desole je tape sur un clavier americain alors pas d’accents!) le vrai probleme c’est que ni le lyrisme “a la francaise” ni les infomercial articles a l’anglo-saxonne ne parlent serieusement du dopage.
Au fond, les deux styles d’ecriture cherchent a vendre un produit a travers un mythe. Pour la presse Francaise le produit c’est le Tour de France et le cyclisme en general (donc un objectif plus noble en soi) via le mythe du courage voire de l’heroisme du ou des cyclistes. Pour la presse americaine c’est vendre pour vendre (souvent un produit — velo — ou une marque) avec le mythe de la techonologie infaillible (“les nouvelles pedales carbones vont vous faire gagner 1 secondes tout les 123 metres”) . Au fond, les deux styles sont bases sur l’illusion quand ce n’est pas le mensonge pur et simple.

Heureusement qu’il y a des exceptions comme irnrg. A vous de me signaler celles isssues de l’hexagone!

Aldus Maximus July 2, 2011 at 2:57 am

“Nobody can invent things these days”. Bullshit. Things are just as contrived as ever, just on orders of scale and magnitude and with a programmatic sterility. The only difference is that it’s co-emerged from a bull-shit collective, a non-summative whole and not some individual staring at a single blank page.

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