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
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.
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
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.
▲ Parisian rugby team
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.
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
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.
▲ French Olympic sailing team
▲ The Opening tee at the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National
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
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.