Why ESPN’s '30 for 30: Slaying the Badger' Epitomizes Sports' Best Rivalries
Set against the backdrop of the 1986 Tour de France, the film tells the story of Greg LeMond and his mentor Bernard "The Badger" Hinault, who started as friends and teammates but ended up as bitter rivals, director John Dower tells THR.
With the 2014 Tour de France reaching its dramatic conclusion on July 27, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is taking a look back at one of the most bitter and unexpected rivalries in sports in the new film Slaying the Badger.
The film focuses on Greg LeMond, the first and only American to officially win cycling's biggest race, and the man who was meant to be his mentor but instead became his tormenter during the 1986 Tour, five-time champion champion Bernard "The Badger" Hinault.
Directed by John Dower (Once in a Lifetime, HBO's Thrilla in Manila), and based on the book of the same name by Richard Moore, Badger reveals that even in a sport that purports to reward teamwork, it's still every man for himself.
"This is a story that any sports fan will appreciate and enjoy," says Connor Schell, vp and executive producer, ESPN Films and Original Content of the complicated rivalry that melds friendship with the desire for victory. "It is something unprecedented and different, that also resonates not only around the sports world but also around the globe."
London-born director Dower reveals that the concept of the film was born in the back of taxi in Belgium when he was told about the book by a fellow sports journalist while following British champion Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France. "He said it was the greatest book about cycling ever, and I thought it would make a good film. Then after several bottles of Burgundy, we decided to option it that night," he reveals.
A single phone call to ESPN and they were on the road to making the Tribeca Film Festival doc. "This was strangely straightforward. They [30 for 30] had been pitched lots of Lance Armstrong stories, and they didn’t want to make a film about him — this is the story about the good guy," Dower tells THR. "Some films take years to get off the ground, some just a few glasses of great wine," he adds.
"ESPN was quick to see the value in the story of not only arguably the greatest race in the Tour's century-old history, but one with a rivalry up there alongside Borg versus McEnroe, Frazier and Ali ... LeMond-Hinault."
Now 53, "Greg is the archetypal Californian cliche. He is one of the most naturally talented cyclists in the history of the Tour who was thrown into this relationship with his mentor, the Badger (who was so extreme that he rode his bike off a cliff once and then got right back on it.)
"Greg was starstruck when he first met his hero, as he was the apprentice and getting trained up to be the next big thing in cycling," explains Dower, casting LeMond as Luke Skywalker to Hinault's Obi-Wan Kenobi.
"The seeds were sown in the '85 Tour, then after that there was a public declaration and Badger was going to ride for LeMond — but he didn’t. He broke the pledge at every turn because he thought he could win the Tour. As one commentator said at the time, 'He just couldn’t help himself,' which makes him sound like a serial killer!"
Describing cycling as "bonkers" and "an individual sport done in teams," Dower captures the true essence of the era before it was dominated by Armstrong and repeated allegations of doping.
"It is the simple rivalry of two guys who started off as friends — then one broke his promise — for a story that goes beyond cycling," he says of the documentary, where the betrayal was carried out against the backdrop of some of the most stunning mountains in the world.
Slaying the Badger premieres on ESPN on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.