The Role of Sports in the French Culture

The French seem to be better known for smoking in cafés while drinking fine wine and discussing New Wave cinema rather than for their athletic abilities. A quick Google search of “Why are the French so ...” turns up with “romantic”, “dark”, “thin”, “depressed”, and “healthy”. I’m not sure what an amalgamation of those characteristics would be, but “athletic” is not the first thing that springs to mind.

The Sport Events that France Hosts

And yet France hosts events such as the Tour de France 🚴🏽‍, which is an annual cycling competition held in different stages over a period of three weeks, passing through the Pyrenées and the Alps, and ending at the Champs-Élysées. France also hosts the French Open 🎾, a major tennis tournament held in late May / early June at the famous Stade Roland-Garros.

In addition, France has the reigning winning team of the World Cup⚽, the most popular worldwide soccer championship, which the French feel very strongly about. In addition to these signs of an affinity for sports, smoking in cafés, as well as in other enclosed public places, has been banned in France since 2006 and smoking laws are becoming stricter and stricter, with current bans extending to places such as children’s schoolyards and including electronic cigarettes. So, moving away from a rather dated image of a paunchy Frenchman in a Speedo wading in a lake with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, what role exactly do sports play in French life?

French Gym Culture vs. American Gym Culture

The French appreciation for sports might be distinct from having a gym culture that permeates every facet of society. We can compare French gym culture, or lack thereof, to American gym culture, which thrives in the entertainment industry, educational institutions, fashion, and even turns of phrase (if you want to estimate something in a very vague way, you can give a “ballpark figure”, even if the last time you were in a baseball stadium you were there to listen to live streaming of Mozart’s Don Giovanni from the opera house a mile away). Famous athletes regularly appear on television commercials for cold cereal (something has to make it less boring than it is) and soft drinks, as well as athletic gear. The viewing audience for the yearly Super Bowl, the final game of the American football season, is so large that snagging an advertising spot at half-time is like striking gold.

The Sports Culture at French Universities

College sports are also wildly popular in American culture, with universities regularly recruiting elite athletes to boost their own teams. Sports are also a part of the daily lives of many Americans, with joggers dotting the streets of American suburbs, or the large parks found in more metropolitan areas, while donning the latest trends in athletic gear. For an American who wants to slip in a pre-brunch workout on Sunday, it is perfectly understandable to wear that $324 Lululemon outfit when meeting up at the local brunch hotspot. I was reminded of this when visiting a friend in Silicon Valley and wondering if it would be acceptable for me to wear cutoffs and the Dolly Parton t-shirt he’d lent me when we ourselves were headed to brunch. He reminded me of what everyone else would be wearing and said it would be perfectly fine.        

While the French would be much less likely to show up to brunch in Nike dri-fit mesh training shorts™, they will likely be supportive of their sports teams, even at the notoriously studious École Normale Supérieure, where I saw a normalien watching the World Cup on television. Yes, there was only one person in the common area watching. And he was watching so calmly while remaining seated in his chair that I wondered if he was awake, since he remained more or less motionless, even as his team was WINNING. Perhaps he thought he was watching a documentary. As for brunch, this is more of an American thing, probably related to the fact that American breakfasts are much more copious than French breakfasts and a morning meal is easier to turn into an event in America. Normaliens do have a very cute way of organizing Sunday lunches together in their residence halls, and will likely not show up to these in athletic gear either.        

So no, there is not a huge sports culture at French universities which, unlike American universities, do not have sports teams and have very minimal gym space. I did see a normalienne playing ping-pong at the ENS gym while wearing Mary Janes, which is more like something you might see on the on the television show Cheers (which takes place in a bar), than something you would see at an American gym, where all of the latest advances in athletic footwear would be on display.

Rather than participating avidly in gym culture, the French tend to gravitate toward outdoor sports, perhaps due to France’s Mediterranean climate. In addition to cycling and tennis, sailing is popular, with the Vendée Globe, an around-the-world yacht competition occurring every four years, starting in the French Atlantic. Considered an elitist sport in countries such as the US and UK, sailing in France covers a broader social spectrum, with sailing activities being offered for free beginning in primary school. Skiing is popular as a vacation activity in the Alps and Pyrenées areas, and also practiced by very skilled professionals, including those who won medals in the sport at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang. Rugby is hugely popular in France, particularly in the Southwest, where it rivals soccer as the favored sport. French rugby teams are a strong presence in international championships, with the French women’s team being ranked third by World Rugby in 2017. Basketball is also well-loved, and the French national team has shown a strong presence in European as well as Olympic games. It is also a popular sport in city parks, such as the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, where avid players regularly meet up to play.

Considering all of these activities, it seems that there is a lot of opportunity in France to participate in sports and to be spectators. As for the question of whether or not the French are athletic, it seems that while some do fit the exported cinematic image of cigarette-smoking Derrida-discussing café patrons, others are outside sailing, cycling, skiing, and enjoying the many athletic activities that France has to offer.


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