“The excitement generated by the contemplation of performance is the essence of modern sport”

“Citius, altius, fortius” : ” faster, higher, stronger “. SO that the Paris Games are approaching, the Olympic motto rings in the ears of athletes and political leaders like an encouragement… and a warning: the results must be there. But where does this incentive to constantly surpass oneself and others come from? Can high-level sport even be thought of outside of this infinite quest? The historian and sociologist Georges Vigarello, director of studies at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and author of numerous historical and theoretical works on the history of bodily practices, analyzes the organic link between sport and performance.

Performance is a central concept for understanding sporting practices. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about performance?

The notion of performance today covers two different definitions. According to a first meaning, very well described by the sociologist Alain Ehrenberg in his work The Cult of Performance [1991], to perform is to act, to bring about an action. This definition is particularly widely used in art, and in particular living art, because it goes back to the heart of the notion of action: that is to say a present which is not repeated and which insists on the the individual aspect of the act.

But there is another side of performance, which particularly interests us here: according to this second definition, to perform is to try to do the best possible, as far as possible, to obtain the best possible result. It is a “better” which pushes the limits of what has already been done, which projects itself into an indefinite excellence. Perform can therefore mean “accomplish”, or refer to the exploit, the success.

In French, the term “performance” appears for the first time in the Littré dictionary in 1863, in the plural: it is described there as “an English word used in the language of turf to indicate the table of tests undergone in the racecourse by a racehorse, or even a horse’s way of running, of behaving during the race. The 1962 edition of Robert takes up Littré’s definition, while extending it: “Sports term, feat of a horse in a race, but also of an athlete, of a team in an event. »

So the very idea of ​​performance, and even more so of sporting performance, has not always existed?

If we look at the history of practices, we see that there is no performance, in the sense we understand it today, in ancient Greece. Henry de Montherlant has a magnificent sentence on this subject in The Olympics [1924] : “The Greeks did not engrave on the pedestal of any of their athletic statues the performances of the glorified handsome man. » If, at the time, there were many winners and winners, why couldn’t performance be thought of in the ancient Greek context? Why doesn’t it make sense?

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