While the recent focus on mega-sport events has shown both the IOC and FIFA maneuvering – perhaps even, contorting — to ensure their games are seen as politically neutral, Amaury Sport Organization, owners and organizers of the Tour de France, show themselves of a different political posture. More open and embracing of political narrative and identity-making as a celebrated part of their showcase event, organizers of the 2014 edition of the Tour de France have set forth a race itinerary that will commemorate the World War I Centenary.
Even without a special memorial dedication, the Tour de France, acts as celebration and rehearsal of French identity.
As officially described by the Tour’s race organizers, “It would have been unacceptable for the Tour not to commemorate the Centenary of the start of World War I in its own way… However, we will focus on the race, which promises to be a spectacular showdown.”
As the race works its way through the vast, diverse landscape of the French Republic, the media tells and shows just what it means to be French. As an annual tradition, the Tour de France territorially circumscribes the country, while showcasing the diversity and beauty of the nation. French spectators and TV audiences become ingathered in a shared experience that acts to represent national unity and cohesion.
The 2014 WWI Centenary editions of the Tour de France further incorporate distinct, nationalistic markers for understanding French character, past and present.
For the French, to commemorate World War I is to remember the war costs of 1.3 million French lives lost and an additional 1.1 million wounded veterans. As much as this tour is about memorializing war loss and tragedy for France, it is also about conquest and victory. The French can narrate The Great War as a just or heroic cause, one in which valor can be found.
This French story even carries across borders. As Ypres, Belgium hosts the Stage 5 race departure and the Tour works its way through or near other WWI impacted areas and major battle sites in Arras, France — the Chemin des Dames, Verdun, and Douaumont — the route will partially trace the Western Front. These opportunities for retelling French history are the basic workings and construction of collective memory.
The 2014 Tour de France Centenary Memorial Tour will also pay tribute to three former winners of the Tour — François Faber, Octave Lapize and Lucien Petit-Breton — who died during the war.
Tour de France Director Christian Prudhomme has said that the Tour de France is, in fact, an appropriate forum that should lead a “collective moment of silence.” Beyond this planned and officially sanctioned moment of silence, no further details or plans for commemorative signage or clothing for racers or spectators have been announced yet. By and large, it is the work of the media, as the Tour passes memorial spaces and monuments, to narrate the race in the context of a selected historical framing.
The Tour de France arises as one memorial landscape among other battlefield tours, exhibitions, and TV programming endeavors taking place internationally to pay tribute to WWI Centenary.
Among participating countries — Australia, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Kenya, Turkey, and the UK — Germany is absent. Perhaps, it is understandable that Germany is not so interested in these memorializing ‘festivities.’ For Germany, the loss of territories and colonies, the cost of war reparations, the loss of lives, and the collective guilt of WWI (not to mention, the Second World War) sours the emotional enthusiasm of celebrating this Centenary.
The Tour de France 2014 WWI Centenary commemoration is particularly interesting and important for what it reveals about processes of memory work. Collective memory is a present tense, active process, of telling and retelling who we are. It involves political, economic, and social decisions that include and ignore certain stories.
But does the excitement and tourism of sport celebration mix well with the somber work of remembering past military feats? The task of balancing tragedy, tourism, and sport celebration may be a tight rope not worth walking.
Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter: @cabinet48