France, a Nation of Sports

The French have a particular penchant for self-deprecation, and many fail to realize that their country is one of the finest sporting nations on earth. What’s more, they have enjoyed this status for many years.
© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

We are regularly reminded that it was a French person, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who resurrected the Olympics at the turn of the 20th century. This event was first invented by the Ancient Greeks, and the next edition will be held in Paris, from July 26 to August 11, 2024. This is why French, along with English, is the official language of the Games.

In the hubbub of 2022 soccer World Cup being hosted by Qatar in November and December, we have forgotten that we actually have another French figure to thank for this sporting competition. As president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association for 33 years, from 1921 to 1954, Jules Rimet was the driving force behind the first edition of the World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930. As a tribute to him, the event’s trophy – a gold statuette created by French sculptor Abel Lafleur – was rechristened the “Jules-Rimet Cup” in 1946. (In 1974, it was replaced by the trophy we know today, designed by an Italian artist.)

The French are generally unaware of the fact that France is one of the world’s greatest sporting nations. A study carried out by English website put the home of Kylian Mbappé and Teddy Riner third in a ranking of the most successful professional sporting countries (using a comparison of various international competitions), only beaten by the United States and Germany. Meanwhile, based on results across some 80 different sports, the ranking put France in fourth place behind the Americans, the Canadians, and the Italians.

France, the Land of Rugby and Soccer

Scoreboards from recent competitions confirm that these positions are anything but wild guesses. For the first time in its history, France, which has won its last ten rugby matches including five games in the 2022 Six Nations Championship, is number one among the top rugby-playing countries. And no one has forgotten that France is also the soccer world champion – a title won in Russia in 2018, which it will be defending in Doha at the end of the year.

Despite such success, the French are far from being front-runners in athletics, as we saw in the recent world championships in Oregon last July. What’s more, they are decidedly average in other leading sports such as swimming and cycling. However, they excel in lesser-known disciplines such as judo, canoeing-kayaking, and cross-country skiing, and they are especially good at fencing. Nevertheless, their greatest strength lies in ball sports – both in the men’s and women’s teams. Aside from soccer and rugby, the French are also masters of handball, basketball, and volleyball. In another recent triumph, the men’s national team beat the Americans to win the 2022 Volleyball Nations League.

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

France also hosts some of the world’s flagship sporting events. With the U.S. Open in New York City, Wimbledon in London, and the Australian Open in Melbourne, Roland-Garros is one of the four major tournaments on the international tennis circuit. It takes place every year a few weeks before the Tour de France, a cycling competition and one of the world’s most mediatized sporting events along with the Summer Olympic Games, the soccer World Cup, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Inventors of Tennis... and Pétanque!

If we take a look back through history, we can see that France’s contribution to modern sports is far greater than we might think. The ancestor of tennis is thought to be le jeu de paume, or court tennis, played by French monks in the Middle Ages. The English, who adopted the game around the 15th century, renamed it after the phonetic deformation of Tenez ! (“Here you go!”), an interjection traditionally addressed by one player to their opponent while serving the ball.

Just like rugby and American football, soccer is derived from la soule, an ancient outdoor sport played in Brittany and Normandy in the Middle Ages. The aim of this game, which had many different variations, was to place a small wooden ball or a pig’s bladder stuffed with straw in a hole, a tree hollow, or another distinctive place. In the interest of exhaustiveness, it should also be noted that France was the birthplace of cycling, automobile racing, fencing, and of course, pétanque.

As the journalist and writer Simon Kuper recently highlighted in Le Monde, the British during the Victorian era developed most of the modern sports we know today, “but didn’t see the point of playing […] against foreigners, so it was left to posh Parisians to create international competitions.” The late Peter Ustinov, a man renowned as much for his keen wit as his acting, put it slightly differently: “The British only invented lots of sports because, whenever they realized they were being beaten by a foreign country, they would quickly come up with new one!”


Article published in the October 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.