- Slaying the Badger dir. by John Dower
ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 documentary Slaying the Badger, based on Richard Moore’s book (2012) of the same title, is a fascinating look at Greg LeMond’s buildup to his first Tour de France victory in 1986. LeMond was not the first American to race professionally in Europe, but he was the first to dominate the sport and the first to do so on color TV. The documentary follows his rivalry with former teammate Bernard Hinault, who won five tours and whom the press and other riders referred to as the “badger” because of his tenacious approach to racing. The main thrust of the documentary is their battle in the 1986 tour. Hinault had said after his 1985 tour victory that he would support LeMond. Instead, Hinault attacked his teammate. LeMond triumphed, but only after several mishaps and close calls, perhaps sabotaged by a French bicycle-racing industry and public not yet ready for an American to defeat their greatest champion. LeMond went on to win the tour in 1989 and 1990, but those races were not the focus of the documentary.
The documentary was produced, written, and directed by John Dower, who previously worked on sports documentaries that include Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of [End Page 394] the New York Cosmos (2006). One of Slaying the Badger’s greatest strengths is that it makes LeMond and Hinault’s rivalry accessible to cycling enthusiasts and general sport fans. Since the film was released on ESPN, a network that usually features more U.S.-friendly sports like American football and basketball, this was a necessity.
The documentary is visceral. There is an excellent amount of archival footage and the use of interviews with LeMond and Hinault as narration makes it a joy to experience. It also allows viewers to see how the rivals have aged and to remember their careers. Both Moore’s book and Dower’s film provide a LeMond-centric story. While the documentary does a nice job of providing multiple perspectives from Hinault and former team director Paul Koechli, its narrative ultimately follows LeMond’s victory and interviews with him—in particular, those where he chats alongside his partner Kathy LeMond—are the most prominent.
Slaying the Badger also provides the broader context surrounding LeMond’s rise. Similar to many other athletes, LeMond discovered bicycle racing as a training and recovery tool for downhill skiing. He started racing in 1975 and, by the end of the 1970s, in the midst of an endurance-sport rebirth, was dominating American cycling and opening eyes on the world stage. At the time, European track and road racing was looking to globalize. LeMond was a natural and desirable choice to help propel this expansion: an American rider with incredible physiological potential. France’s biggest star, Bernard Hinault, and his team, La Vie Claire, thus recruited LeMond.
LeMond’s was a time in cycling that many nostalgically remember as a cleaner past, and the documentary emphasizes its protagonist’s and his former teammate Andy Hampsten’s statements that they chose not to dope and suffered toward the end of their careers at the hands of performance-enhanced competitors. Beyond this brief mention, Dower’s documentary carefully navigates around the subject of doping. Lance Armstrong, for example, is noticeably not interviewed. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Dower claims that 30 for 30 “had been pitched lots of Lance Armstrong stories, and they didn’t want to make a film about him.” Slaying the Badger, in contrast, is a “story about the good guy.” While Slaying the Badger may have had a clear rationale for avoiding Armstrong, when one considers the fact that the tour’s titans of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Eddy Merckx or Jacques Anquetil, either tested positive for drugs multiple times or openly admitted to using stimulants, the decision to avoid doping and Armstrong seems suspicious. This conspicuous choice idealizes Greg LeMond. It memorializes a hero in a sport that is now stereotypically villainous, and it does so very well. [End...