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Sports in France

A round up of French sporting excellence

With an area roughly double that of the UK, France is blessed with vast swathes of wide open space in a variety of terrains. Sports of all kind are possible, and often in wonderfully scenic surroundings. 

France was one of the key motivators behind the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the 19thcentury and that proved something of a turning point in the sporting prowess of the nation. New sports were adopted, facilities for others were refined and the basis of a modern approach to sporting excellence was forged.

Many sports are enjoyed in France, some officially regulated and controlled, others more casual and somewhat ‘below the radar’ (think pétanque). Here are a few of the leading sports in France today.

Tour de France

Tour de France

Cycling

Part of the culture as much as it is part of the sporting heritage, cycling permeates every walk of life in France. From the finely tuned racing professional to the countless amateurs grimly pedalling away at the weekend in all conditions.

The Tour de France runs over three weeks in July and is one of the world’s greatest élite events. It attracts over 12 million spectators who flock to watch along the way each year, with another 3.5 billion who form the global TV audience.

The Paris-Roublaix race is a one-day event in the north, with the cobbled surfaces providing a particular challenge even for the most experienced riders. Other cycling events that make headlines are the GP Ouest-France, Critérium du Dauphiné and the Paris-Nice stages, often used as preparation races ahead of the Tour de France.

Jacques Anquetil won the Tour de France five times, Bernard Hinault was a true great and Eddie Merckx is, to many, the greatest cyclist of all time

 France celebrating their victory of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Football

A sport that drifted across the Channel in the 19thcentury and caught on, soccer is played throughout the country and at every level. 

The official leagues alone have around 2 million players and are governed by the Fédération Française de Football which delegates the running of the two top tier Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 to the Ligue de Football Professionel (LFP). Amateurs are well represented with their own leagues and championships and women’s football has its own divisions too.   

Generations of illustrious players have thrilled the nation with their skill and flair: Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Michel Platini are national heroes of the recent past, while today’s young talent includes the likes of Kylian Mbappé.

 Parisian rugby team

Rugby Union

Another sport hailing from Britain in the 1870s, rugby took hold in the southern regions of France. Strongholds have long been the south west around Toulouse and Basque country, particularly Biarritz, as well as Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast.

As the sport grew so too did the money involved and today some French rugby clubs are among the richest in the world, with access to star players from around the world. Paris is the modern home of French rugby, played at the imposing Stade de France which replaced the famous Parc des Princes in 1998.  

The French national team has a reputation for thrilling, flamboyant rugby that is as free flowing as it is mercurial – the possibility of imminent collapse is ever-present. Great players like Serge Blanco, Frédéric Michalak, Raphaël Ibanez and Serge Betsen all played their part in raising the French game to new heights.

 Rafael Nadal at the 2018 French Open

Tennis 

The second most popular sport in France with 1.1 million registered players, tennis is widely played in every corner of the country. With a generally sunny climate, the conditions are excellent for the game and the large influx of tourists in summer only stimulates the demand (and the commercial sense) for more tennis courts.

A highlight is the French Open held on the open air clay courts of the Stade Roland Garros in late May. Perhaps the most celebrated French greats are Jannick Noah and René Lacoste who of course went on to create his famous sports fashion brand.

 2018 French Grand Prix

Motorsports

There’s a long heritage of motor racing in France, dating back to the 1906 French Grand Prix. Formula One is followed avidly by motorsports fans and the 24 Hours Le Mans classic is a huge global event. Rallying is a popular sport in France with the Rallye d’Alsace and the Tour de Corse being a couple of headliners that take drivers through some of France’s most tortuous and challenging (and scenically gorgeous) terrain. 

Alain Prost, René Arnoux, Jacques Laffite, Didier Peroni and Jean Alesi are just a few names on the roll call of great French drivers who have captured headlines and electrified the Formula One circuits over the years.

 French Olympic sailing team

Sailing

With so much coastline, it’s no surprise that France is a major sailing nation. A French strength has long been short-handed and single-handed ocean racing, notably at the Vendée-Globe around the world race that takes place every four years. The Solitaire du Figaro and the Route du Rhum are other sailing races that attract stiff competition and the vast inland lakes of the Landes and Rhône-Alpes provide superb conditions for sailing and windsurfing.

Great sailors like Gabart, de Kersauson and Moitpessier may not have been widely known outside French sailing circles but they were pioneering champions

 The Opening tee at the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National

Golf

France boasts some of Europe’s finest golf courses. The vast spaces, warm climate, plenty of water and an incessant demand have partly explained the boom in golf course development in recent decades, especially when a course can be created in the grounds of an elegant country house or château.

Golf de Chantilly, Le Golf National, Golf d’Hardelot, Golf du Touquet and Terre Blanche are just a few. And players like Victor Dubuisson, Jean Van de Velde and Alexander Levy all helped bring the sport into living rooms and clubhouses across France

 Mathieu Faivre at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics

Skiing

Naturally, this is a holiday activity, and sport, in the mountainous areas of the Alps, Vosges, Pyrenees and in the Massif Central. Since Emile Allais won World Championships in the 1930s and Henri Oreiller took Olympic Gold in the 1948 Olympics, France has been fixated with the drama and excitement of skiing.

Pétanque

Ok, it’s perhaps not a sport with the financial clout of football, the mass appeal of cycling or the glamour of motor racing, but it is very much part of French life. Boules and pétanque are broadly similar games with slightly different rules. But both are broadly social games played by anyone, especially friends and family, often outside a café and generally with a glass of wine or pastis to hand.

To the casual tourist or the passing visitor, it’s a slightly quirky spectacle, iconic and oh-so-French. But to the French it is simply part of life. The major sporting events that capture headlines, stir the passions and raise the spirits are undeniably important. But gently chucking a few steel balls around on the gravel, well that’s part of French national identity.

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