By Richard Moore in Arenberg


George Orwell said that serious sport is war minus the shooting, but it isn’t, and I feel uncomfortable sometimes at the close links between sport and the military, as though they are two sides of the same coin.

There has seemed in recent years to be a growing convergence between the two. I am with Richard Williams, who wrote in the Guardian that he finds ‘something disquieting about this gradual blending of sporting and military culture,’ particularly when there is the suspicion that sporting occasions are used to justify the government’s latest military campaign rather than support the men and women of the armed forces – an important distinction.

But the Tour de France remembering the First World War, and honouring the fallen, is an entirely different thing. In Ypres on Wednesday and Arras on Thursday it isn’t just fitting that the Tour pays its respects, but necessary.

640px-François_Faber_-_Paris-Roubaix_1913

François Faber.

There is nothing contrived about this link. The Tour stopped for the so-called Great War, re-starting in 1919 with a small field of 65 riders, only eleven of whom made it to Paris. It was notable more for who was missing: Lucien Petit-Breton, the winner in 1907 and ’08, François Faber, the champion in 1909, and Octave Lapize, who won in 1910.

Imagine World War Three breaking out now, and the Tour stopping once again, then resuming with three recent champions having been killed in action. It is unimaginable and yet, watching the peloton assemble beneath leaden skies in the centre of Ypres on Wednesday morning, all too easy to relate these young men to their predecessors Faber, 28 when he died, Lapize, 29, and Petit-Breton, 35.

‘I tell you what they should do,’ said Rod Ellingworth, the no-nonsense Team Sky coach, standing in the Grote Markt. ‘Make ’em all stand under that,’ he pointed in the direction of the Menin Gate, the memorial to the missing that leads into the main square, bearing the names of more than 54,000 soldiers whose graves are not known.

‘Make ’em go and read the names,’ added Ellingworth, meaning the riders. ‘All of ’em!’

Maybe one or two did go and inspect the memorial, but most, perhaps understandably in such dismal weather, did not.

Belgium’s Omega Pharma-QuickStep team paid their own tribute, their jerseys incorporating red poppies, but the Tour’s official tribute will be on Thursday, on the stage from Arras to Reims, which passes several battlefields.

It was near Arras that Faber was killed on May 9, 1915. One story is that when he was told that his wife had given birth to a daughter he jumped out of the trench and was shot by the Germans. Another is that he was killed while carrying an injured colleague back from no-man’s land during fighting. Faber was posthumously awarded the Médaille Militaire.

War metaphors are used liberally about sport in general, the Tour de France in particular, where the men go off to ‘do battle’ – leaving the women at home – for a whole month.

Wednesday’s brutal stage over the pavé, from Ypres to Arenberg, was perhaps about as close as sport ever gets to war – not close at all. The Menin Gate, the battlefields and the hundreds of perfectly ordered and maintained cemeteries in this part of the world serve as a poignant reminder that sport should pay its respects, and leave it at that.