Different Sport, Same Theatre

For those looking to fill the content void left by The Last Dance, Netflix’s The Least Expected Day provides another absorbing journey into the dysfunctional world of high performance sport.

Offices are strange places in the COVID-19 era.

The colleagues I’ve spent the past two and a half years with have been reduced to webcam representations unless the rota dictates we share a day in the building. 

What’s lost is not just support and collaboration with work, but the countless conversations that generate ideas, provide life advice, prompt personal development and most importantly, unearth Netflix recommendations.

A few weeks ago, I shared the work space with a team member who is a regular source of all the above. During our opening coffee forum, he begins to suggest a fly-on-the-wall series profiling an elite sports team battling egos, expectations and insecurities. 

I was initially annoyed that he didn’t think the sole basketball fan in our office would be acutely aware of the feverishly anticipated Michael Jordan biopic, The Last Dance, but that was before ‘professional cycling’ was mentioned.

Turns out he was actually referring to The Least Expected Day, a six-part inside look at the capricious personnel of road bicycle racing’s Movistar Team, during the 2019 season.

It’s very good and if you’re looking for something to provide further viewing of athletes  painstakingly coexisting while intermittently telling us how they really feel through talking head interviews, this might be for you. 

The Last Dance employed the well-tested model of using compelling sporting theatre as merely the background to paint engrossing portraits of the people involved.  

We heard two players open up about the impact of a murdered parent, and saw a head coach impart Zen Buddhist teachings to guide his player away from self-destructive tendencies born from childhood abandonment. We learnt about the general manager who built the most successful NBA team of the decade and would tear it all down because he couldn’t manage his envy towards the players and coaches.

The Least Expected Day follows suit and provides us with a captivating insight into the fragile ecosystem of professional cycling.

Movistar Team’s General Manager, Eusebio Unzué is scribbling on a clear perspex board when we first meet him, explaining how he’ll deploy his lead riders throughout the season and most importantly during the sport’s three Grand Tours: the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España. 

“I knew I couldn’t expect anything from somebody who had the same goal I had.” 

Those are the words of lead cyclist, Mikel Landa, who does not hide his ambitions to be Movistar’s main man in the big moments, except when he is asked to be Movistar’s main man in the big moments. 

Scottie Pippen was a supremely talented basketball player who performed the supporting actor role to Michael Jordan for the majority of his career with the Chicago Bulls. His self-awareness and willingness to accept that role, amid multiple disputes and contract grievances, saw him end up a Hall of Famer.

Landa could be considered a modern day Scottie Pippen, undeniably talented and capable of winning individual races, but unable to get his team across the final finish line without teammates who possess stronger winning pedigree.

The young Basque rider has a long way to go before he’s ready to embrace a Pippen like career arc and we see the frustration from Movistar management boil over with comments like: “He always wants to lead but in the end he doesn’t lead at all.”  

The object of Landa’s ire is usually teammate, Nairo Quintana, who cuts an aloof figure despite everybody on his team investing considerable time and energy to position him for a winning Tour de France campaign. 

Movistar desperately want Quintana to be their Jordan and deliver them the yellow jersey, but the adored Colombian closer resembles the Michael who, burnt out and seeking new challenges, retired from the NBA in his prime to play minor league baseball.

The volatile emotions of the cyclists contrast incredibly with the absolute passivity from team management, who seem as willing to confront contentious issues as lockdown weary parents who no longer have the energy to mediate arguments about which child gets to use the iPad.

It’s not all atmosphere and moodiness. Well-timed humour often comes in the form of the refreshingly content veteran cyclist, Alejandro Valverde, while the frightfully ambitious Richard Carapaz provides viewers an early rooting interest as he profits greatly from Landa’s apathy in the Giro.

Just like any good documentary of the genre, you don’t need to be a fan of the featured sport to enjoy the series. I hadn’t watched a single cycling road race prior to viewing the episodes and I’m currently spending a bank holiday weekend writing 800 words endorsing them.

It may all be happening in the esoteric world of elite sports, but I’m sure watching people try to manage their complex emotions under sustained pressure while living in close quarters will prove strangely relatable to a lot of you right now.

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