Christopher Thompson was born in Morocco in 1959 and raised in Africa, Europe and the United States. Educated during his childhood and adolescence in French schools in Algeria and Belgium, he went on to study at Harvard University (B.A. in French Literature) and Middlebury College (M.A. in French). After a five-year career in secondary education, he enrolled at New York University where he earned an M.A. in French Studies and a Ph.D. in French Studies and Modern European History. His dissertation on the social, cultural, and political history of cycling under the Third Republic earned him the Outstanding Dissertation Prize in 1997. Now in his eleventh year at Ball State University in Indiana, he is an Associate Professor of History and the Director of the History M.A. Program.
Christopher Thompson’s research on the social and cultural history of French cycling seeks to integrate the history of sport into broader themes of modern French history—to use sport as a means of generating fresh insights about key moments and developments in France’s tumultuous twentieth century. These include the World Wars, class and gender issues, public health debates, and a variety of hopes and fears sparked by modernity. Professor Thompson’s original approach has been rewarded by prestigious grants (a Chateaubriand Scholarship from the French government and a Summer Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities). His scholarship has been published in leading academic journals in Germany and France, as well as in English-language publications, and culminated recently in the publication of his first book, The Tour de France: A Cultural History (University of California Press, 2006), which has already attracted considerable positive attention from both academic and mainstream reviewers.
1. "Giants of the Road" or Dopers ? The Contested Heroism of Tour de France Racers
From the first Tour de France in 1903 the race's participants have been celebrated as heroic "giants of the road" whose exceptional courage and perseverance in the face of great suffering would inspire a nation repeatedly confronted throughout the twentieth century with challenges to its survival. The grueling physical and psychological conditions of the Tour and the racers' status as national heroes also placed them at the center of French debates about work and class. In the polarized politics of pre-World War II France, those debates were shaped by competing images of the racers. Some commentators extolled Tour racers as respectable, self-disciplined "pedal workers" whose uncomplaining acceptance of arduous working conditions, if emulated by industrial workers nationwide, would defuse class conflict. Other observers, on the contrary, pitied Tour racers as "slave laborers" whose ferocious exploitation by the Tour's organizers and commercial sponsors replicated the widespread exploitation of workers in French factories, and whose resistance against inhumane racing conditions might inspire a broader revolt by France's proletariat against industrial capitalism.
After World War II, although images of the racers as model workers and slave laborers were rarely revived, Tour racers continued to feature prominently in French debates about working conditions and workers' rights. The central issue now was the racers' longstanding but increasingly sophisticated practice of illicit performance-enhancing doping. This practice has had important implications for the racer's century-old image as "giants of the road." Simply put, can racers who dope be heroic?
2. Cycling in Search of France: The Tour de France and French Identities
No bicycle race indeed, no sporting event, has been more intimately associated with French geography and the identities it has shaped than the Tour de France. Some commentators have used the Tour's route to celebrate French regional diversity as the foundation of a national unity that has remained impervious to the siren call of local particularisms. They have portrayed the race's itinerary as an annual pilgrimage into the nation's glorious, if often painful, history. As such, the Tour's function was to cement the national community by stressing the common experience and territory that bind the French together as one nation. Other commentators, however, have used the Tour's route to offer alternative readings of French history that emphasized division and exclusion.
Observers have thus exploited the race's itinerary to generate multiple, often contradictory visions of the nation and to formulate historical narratives that served specific ideological ends. Such efforts were facilitated by the fact that the organizers' inclusion of regions and host communities was at times motivated by the desire to make a political statement or recognize a historic event. What these diverse and often competing stories about what it means to be French underscore is that the Tour's image belonged to no single political movement, interest group, or government, and that its itinerary could be used both to emphasize and undermine national unity and social cohesion.
3. The “Real Men” and “Real Women” of the Tour de France: Gender and Social Change in Twentieth-Century France
France’s twentieth century was characterized by considerable turmoil: two World Wars, political instability, the loss of a colonial empire, and considerable social conflict challenged the French as perhaps never before over the course of a single century, leading many to fear for their country. For many commentators across the century, another important development caused great alarm: new rights and opportunities for women. Such gains by women appeared to challenge “natural” gender roles and in so doing threaten social stability—indeed, the nation’s very survival. Confronted with so much traumatic change, many French turned to a comforting image of their greatest sports heroes, the racers of the Tour de France, as representing a traditional, timeless gender order that was under assault and upon which the nation’s salvation depended.
From the race’s earliest years media coverage of the Tour presented the racers as hypervirile men who overcame great obstacles by virtue of their distinctly male qualities of courage, toughness, and endurance in the face of great suffering. Women were very much a part of the stories told about these heroic racers, but they were relegated to conventional female roles: as nurturing, supportive mothers and wives, and as blushing admirers of muscular, brave young men who took on a prodigious challenge from which “fragile” women were naturally excluded. Although developed before World War I, this image of conventional gender roles has persisted to the present day, because it has offered a conservative counterpoint to fears that increasingly emancipated and empowered women were blurring fundamental sexual differences and undermining social stability as they gained new rights and opportunities.
Despite the creation of a women’s Tour in 1984 and the fact that the greatest female racer of the past quarter-century (and of all time) has been the French woman Jeannie Longo, women racers have been unable to attract the mass interest, media coverage, and levels of corporate sponsorship that pertain in a number of other women’s sports in France. The continuing marginalization of female cycling suggests that most French continue to see cycling and the Tour in particular as the affair of “real men.” If this is so, it suggests that as the Tour moves into its second century, it may still have much to teach us about French attitudes toward gender and social change.
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