Wild Horses

We were standing outside the magnificent striped Duomo in Siena, Italy, when my father decided to buy a souvenir from one of the many carts alongside the church. They all had the same scarves hanging on racks. My niece Sophia wanted the blue scarf with a shell on it, the scarf that represented the Nicchio neighborhood. She made this choice for aesthetic reasons (She is nine. She likes seashells), but I also knew she was on to something. It was the day before the Palio, the bareback horserace that pits the colorfully named neighborhood associations or contrade (Caterpillar, Turtle, Shell) against one another in a brutal contest, and the Shell was the favorite.

The amiable, round-faced peddler tied the scarf around Sophia’s neck in the style of the Sienese, and then said to me: “They are my enemy—” He laughed. “—the Shell.”

“You are Valdimontone?” I asked, knowing that the Ram members were sworn rivals of the Shell. He said he was. “But the Shell have a good horse?” I added tentatively.

“Yes, but we have hired a good jockey,” he said. “He will—” he paused. His face lit up like a mischievous child’s. The jolly souvenir peddler made a violent gesture with his fist. Then he laughed again.

I knew what he meant. I had already heard from others that the Shell had drawn a champion horse, which are randomly selected just three days before the race, and had immediately hired a successful jockey. The Ram meanwhile had drawn a slow horse, which was not good news for the Shell. The Ram then gave up on trying to win the race and hired the jockey equivalent of a hockey goon. His only job would be to stop the Shell—by whatever means necessary. As I walked toward the church, the souvenir guy was still smiling to himself, dreaming of the fall of the Shell.

That’s the way of the Palio, a race of bribery, conniving, and spite. Sociologists and journalists (including me) have written about the race, often trying to come to terms with its strange combination of flamboyant, nostalgic tourist spectacle (complete with hordes of guys dressed like the Jack of Diamonds) and a contemporary, somewhat inhospitable, tribalism. The Palio is no reenactment, and it is not for tourists. Or so say the Sienese as they parade through the crowded city beating drums, waving flags, and wearing chainmail armor.

But what struck me at the Duomo this time was not the carnival, but the public display of what we might call “bad sportsmanship.” People were proud of their vendettas and their conspiracies. As outsiders, we loved this. How oddly wonderful that a souvenir salesman had an enemy! And then, what glee he showed at the prospect of beating his enemy—physically beating him, not out-racing him! We tourists enjoyed hearing theories and stories (apocryphal or not) of the “sport.”

At the pre-race dinner of the Selva (Forest) contrada, we found the contradioli were optimistic. They suspected the Valdimontone might neutralize the Nicchio’s chances and leave the race wide open. Selva had a good horse, they had no enemies, and they’d hired one of the most successful jockeys in Palio history, Gigi Bruschelli. “He may be old,” said one of the Selva, “but he knows how to win.” The Forester tapped his nose in the way Italians do to suggest some secret machinations. In other words, Bruschelli knew how to fix the race. The contrada would pay him a million euros if he won, but we expected that portions of that money might go to other jockeys.

The jockeys are mercenaries. Many of them are Sardinian, not Sienese, and they will switch allegiences from race to race. I heard, somewhat contradictorily, that both Bruschelli and the Selva horse were under lock and key during the pre-race days. No cell phones. No outsiders. Many jockeys, I was told by another Sienese (a Bruco, or Caterpillar), get beat up by the contrada members if they are suspected of betrayal. Some years ago, he said, the jockey of the Goose rode as if he were paid to lose. Everyone expected some retribution after the race, but none came. Two years later the jockey was getting married in his homeland of Sardinia. Outside the church, a gaggle of Geese waited. They beat him up in front of his family.

On the day of the race the Ram jockey, as predicted, kept trying to get close to the Shell. The start of the race was delayed for more than an hour as the horses wouldn’t line up (There is no starting gate, just a rope). Each time the Ram was supposed to move into the second position (a good post position if he was trying to win!) he drifted outside. Again and again the horses had to reset. When the starter chastised the Ram jockey, he would point at others and then act like his horse was bucking uncontrollably. “It’s not me, boss. It’s the horse.” In the end the race started with the Ram on the outside right by the Shell. Before the second turn the Ram jockey in pale pink grabbed the Shell’s jockey with both arms and threw him off his horse.

foto Twitter – Deb90

(See the race here, or this longer video shows all the delays). Our horse, the Selva, went out in front but he didn’t have the legs to hold on. Or maybe he hadn’t paid the right people. I don’t know. The Tower won the race and with it the painted flag (the “palio”).

All of this intensified the drama of the race, even if it might be called “cheating.” Was it cheating? And if so, how might it compare to Deflategate or the St. Louis Cardinals hacking into the Houston Astros’ computers or the thousands of doping controversies about which we tend to moralize?

Very little philosophy, or thinking in general, seems to be dedicated to determining what cheating is exactly, when and how much we should care.1 Often we assume that cheating must violate some explicit or implicit rule of the sport, but this is a very limited definition. Many of the most egregious forms of cheating like doping are often years ahead of the regulations that curb them. At first blood doping wasn’t against the rules; it was science fiction. Until it wasn’t, and the rules had to catch up. Sometimes too, like in the Palio (or when pitchers “throw at” batters, or hockey players fight), there is a tacit acceptance of behavior that might be technically unlawful. The jockeys are supposed to stay in their post positions, but everyone understands their “jockeying,” even if it is sometimes mean-spirited jockeying that has nothing to do with racing. And even then what the Ram jockey did in the middle of the race wasn’t really against the rules. As long as you don’t grab another jockey’s reins, anything goes. The horse that crosses the finish line first wins, even if it (or someone else) has thrown its jockey. One resident told me that this is the most satisfying victory, the cavallo scosso (shaken horse). Who needs a stinking jockey?

Some philosophers get around this “against-the-rules” definition by suggesting another kind of cheating which violates the fundamental principals (or “constituent elements”) of the sport. The implication is that sports have an “integrity” beyond the simple measure of winner vs. loser. Sports help us appreciate demonstrations of “speed” or “endurance.” Anything that muddies the question of that excellence is cheating. It makes a “race” no longer a “race.” This is a common argument against doping: we should give medals for cycling, not for pharmacology.

There are many counter-arguments to this, but in the context of the Ram and the Shell, this proposition leaves me with two contradictory feelings. First the idea of “excellence” is always very complicated, particularly in team sports in which there is always a tension between winning, ethics, aesthetics, and entertainment. Is winning the goal of competition, or are there many goals? Do you prefer good pitching or the long ball? The run and gun offense? Hack-a-Shaq? Consider Lance Armstrong’s mafia-like cycling teams. Part of his excellence, besides doping, was controlling the race through his team. He wasn’t just great at riding up mountains; he was great at politics.

Then there is the Palio, which honors what excellence exactly? The horses are selected randomly with little time to prepare. The jockeys are not part of the contrade (just as very few Yankees are New Yorkers). It seems to be a competition of luck, negotiation, and corruption. So hiring a thug just to keep your rival from winning, even at the expense of your own chances, is allowed. Conniving is part of the sport’s “constituent elements.”

In this way it is just like life. Or so everyone says. To tourists, this is funny. And yet depressing. This “such is life” idea serves not only as an excuse for unsavory activities along the lines of “everybody’s doing it so it’s not cheating” but also a celebration of our worst selves: deceitful, spiteful, destructive.

And yet, I love the Palio! Which brings me to my other line of thinking: Who cares about cheating in sports? The problem with American sports, perhaps, is that they are too important, too symbolic, too sanctimonious. Why not let them cheat a little? Why do sports have to represent some idea of moral excellence, when very little else in our society does? Sports now have become a place where we can impose a near-sighted ethics while ignoring bigger questions that would force us to look at deeper social, cultural, and political inequalities. How dare you deflate the footballs? (Forget about the terrible labor practices that disregard the health and safety of the players and the rampant corporate greed). The gravity of American sports stems from the money, of course, but also the lack of ideas of moral “excellence” in the rest of our complex economic world. Is “insider trading” violating the “excellence” of trading? What excellence would that be? Sports are always a metaphor, but they are often a bad cliché.

The chief prosecutor in Siena has opened an investigation against the Ram jockey for his assault on the Shell. I’m not sure what to think of this, but I imagine he was paid to do it.

My research on this is very cursory. If you know more about cheating theory, drop me a line.


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