David Coventry on sporting cults

12 July 2016

David Coventry, author of The Invisible Mile, on the cult of sport and the hunt for the sublime.

During the lunch break on test match day at the Basin Reserve in Wellington the crowd are invited out onto the field. They gather, they play tennis ball cricket,  they chase, hit and mimic a hundred small incidents of bat and ball. 

Then out in the middle serious looking punters stand at the edge of the roped-off pitch. Hundreds standing staring at the packed earth, lined with whitewash, scratched by sprigs. Some know what they are looking for, the signs of wear that'll come into play later in the match, the tufts that allow the ball to seam – most just stare. 

Most come to see where the match occurs, where wrist work and balance become the focal point of some longing that doesn't do well with description. Here things occur that aren’t massaged by the statistics; they are the mechanics of conversation that occurs between opponents, the crowds and the past, a hunger for the impossible reclamation of past deeds. Here is the thinish end of a culture's wedge prying the lid off the hole where we store vague agonies in the guise of hopes. And inside there somewhere, a resonate flute amongst strings and horns.

Everyone stares. And it’s all a little cultic.

Indeed, you hear some nobody ask whilst looking down at the dead earth: What is it? And this is the question. We come to see, we gaze at this strange space and ask it. What is it?

And my guess is that this thing, that it’s aura. It’s aura perpetrated by ritual: the ball bowled, the ball hit, the umpires call. And from there a ball in the air, a ball passing a fielder, a ball caught or headed, a ball in a net or placed over a line, a wheel out past another, a rider passed to the front by his teammates, an instant of tactical mastery, the drama of physical exploitation of rules within rules with the greater culture. The blood and the joy of pain. The sublime exorcised out of simple things. The sublime drawn out of riders doing something difficult well.

And it is cultic. It is the very thing Walter Benjamin desired to be erased in the mass event of replication. But it isn’t. It’s perpetuated. A cult of beauty, the aura of the sublime.

We curse its absence as failure.

And now it’s Le Tour’s turn once more. With July the Tour draws devotion in steepling numbers. It’s the continual promise of its history on a grand scale, it's the perpetuation of the language of its history despite its disparity with the past.

The continuation is vital in the fine tuning of the ritual. Repetition and mimesis. Year after year, swapped out with others, riders become signifiers in a chain about France in the chase for the splendour of the sublime. They are words in a song and everyone sings in harmony because for one hundred and thirteen years it has been sung. They are a part of a language that can only be spoken in July on those roads in that heat.

Culture is a thing of ritual and all rituals are the hunt for a little something of the prelapsarian, for the completion of that chain of signification in a moment of sublime.

And why is this wheel in front of another’s such a thing? Because we buy the papers, we line the streets, we watch the television, we count the statistics, we see the blood, we watch for drug use and scandal, we see technique and gape, we see speed and gape, we see ideas and gape, we see raw daring and gape, we follow the caravan, we watch the flow and lag, feel the peloton stretch and compress, we speak its language for a month and more and thus, we have made it so. Carefully, immaculately. The cult of the rider, and the hunt for the sublime.

Based on a true story, David Coventry's The Invisible Mile tells the poignant story of five Australian and New Zealand cyclists who in 1928 formed the first English-speaking team to ride in the Tour de France.

They were gallant, under-resourced and badly outnumbered but taken deep to the heart by the French nation.

Listen to an audio extract