As with their food, the French have a sophisticated palate when it comes to sport: unlike many countries, they don’t limit their interest to a single game involving a spherical ball and 22 scandalously overpaid players in polyester jerseys but embrace a diverse range of activities. In each of these, there have been athletes and teams whose exploits, noble or ignoble, have earned a special place in the national consciousness.
For some, the Olympics will always be a Greek affair but, actually, the modern Games are perhaps France’s greatest contribution to sport. Pierre de Coubertin, a Parisian aristocrat and academic, founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894 and the first modern Olympics were held two years later in Athens. Coubertin even became a gold medalist in literature at the 1912 Games in Stockholm for his poem Ode to Sport. French is still the first language spoken during the opening ceremonies and Paris will host the Olympics for a record-equaling third time in 2024 (100 years after its last turn) or 2028.
Conceived in 1903 as a publicity stunt for the French newspaper L’Auto, the Tour de France is now cycling’s most prestigious event. In 1964, Frenchman Jacques Anquetil became the first rider to win it five times. The next three decades produced their own five-time champions – Belgium’s Eddy Merckx in 1974, France’s Bernard Hinault in 1985, and Spain’s Miguel Indurain in 1995 – and the 2000s appeared to bring the Tour’s greatest ever champion in the shape of Lance Armstrong, who won seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. However, in 2012, after it emerged he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he was stripped of his titles. As legendary director Louis Malle’s short documentary shows, doping was already a concern back in Anquetil’s time.
At the Winter Olympics in 1968, Jean-Claude “Gilette” Killy won in the three alpine skiing events: downhill, slalom, and giant slalom. The last of these, held during heavy snow, has been described by the IOC as the “greatest controversy in the history of the Winter Olympics.” Austria’s Karl Schranz was granted a second attempt after he claimed a spectator had stumbled into his path. The winning time he posted was then annulled when it transpired that he had missed a gate earlier on in his first run, handing Killy victory. No other French athlete has brought home three golds from a single Games.
In 1998, France hosted football’s greatest competition for the second time, sixty years after it first had the honor. Brazilian superstar Ronaldo had the first shot on goal 22 minutes into the final on July 12. France’s star player, Zinedine Zidane, struck back five minutes later, putting Emmanuel Petit’s corner into the back of the net with a header. In a remarkably similar set up, Zidane put the home side two ahead just before half-time. Petit scored the third in stoppage time, cementing Brazil’s worst World Cup defeat since 1930. France became the seventh nation to win the tournament and the sixth to do so on home soil.
The world’s toughest race sees teams of three (until 1978 two) drivers attempting to complete as many laps of the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe as possible in one day. Henri Pescarolo took his first shot at the circuit in 1966 but failed to finish, and his next four attempts finished the same way. Then, in 1972, he won the first of three consecutive races. His fourth victory came in 1984. Not only does Pescarolo hold the record for the most appearances – his 33rd and final Le Mans was in 1999 – his 18 retirements also outnumber anyone else’s.
It might seem strange for a mere semi-final to be counted among France’s defining sporting moments, especially considering the team in question went on to lose resoundingly to Australia in the final, but this match is considered to be not only the Rugby World Cup’s finest contest but also one of sport’s greatest ever comebacks. Jonah Lomu’s All Blacks were the clear tournament favorites and they led Les Bleus 24 to 10 at the start of the second half. Amazingly, in the final 30 minutes, France added 33 points to their total – 28 of which were put on the scoreboard by Chritophe Lamaison – and New Zealand just seven.
Few have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in such spectacular style as Jean Van de Velde. Having played faultless golf all week, he arrived at Carnoustie’s 18th hole (which he had twice birdied) needing only a double bogey six to become the first Frenchman to win a major since 1907. The calamitous 15 minutes which followed saw Van de Velde whacking his ball off the grandstand, getting tangled in knee-high rough, wading bare-footed into a freezing cold burn, and digging his way out of a bunker. In the end, he finished with a triple bogey seven. He then lost the three-way playoff to Scotland’s Paul Lawrie.
Tennis is technically the second most popular sport in France, with 1,11,316 licensed players as of 2012. Despite their enthusiasm on and off the court, the French are sorely lacking champions at the French Open. In the men’s game, the last taste of victory came in 1983 when Yannick Noah beat the defending champion, Sweden’s Mats Wilander, in straight sets. Though its mostly left off France’s own ‘most glorious sporting moments’ lists, possibly because of her triple French-American-Canadian nationality, Mary Pierce’s two-set triumph on the clay over Spain’s Conchita Martinez came much more recently in 2000.
Similarly, France was for many years a nation of swimmers without swimming champions. This sad reality was changed for good at the Athens Olympics in 2004 when Laure Manaudou sped to victory in the 400-meter freestyle. Her gold medal was France’s first ever for women’s swimming and the first in the pool for a French athlete since Jean Boiteux’s success in the same event at the Helsinki Games in 1952. Manaudou didn’t stop there: she won silver in the women’s 800-meter freestyle and a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke. The French swimming team has also brought home medals from all the subsequent Games.
Eight years after their Stade de France victory, the French found themselves once again in the World Cup final, this time at Berlin’s Olympiastadion and facing the Italian national side. Zidane scored the opener with a seventh-minute penalty and Marco Materazzi leveled with a converted corner 12 minutes later. Nothing had changed by the end of extra time when Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the chest and got himself sent off. Explanations abound as to why he did it but French intellectual Bernard Levy takes the biscuit with his ‘suicide of a demi-God’ hypothesis: the glory of a second World Cup win was too great, and so he chose defeat instead. Italy finally won in a penalty shootout 5 to 3.
Le Classique is by far France’s most intense football derby. Also known as the Derby de France, this often-violent rivalry is about north versus south, white-collar Parisians versus blue-collar Marseillais, capital city versus provincial powerhouse. Aside from being France’s two largest teams in terms of supporters, they are also the only two to have lifted major European trophies. One of their biggest matches of late was the final of the Coupe de France in 2016 when PSG’s 4 to 2 win gave them a record 11th title – one more than OM who won their last in 1989.