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Monday, 05 May 2008

Sport in Paris

Written by Matt Genner
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Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic gamesWatching rugby at the Stade Jean Bouin is like no other sporting experience. Only in Paris, a city which embraces individuality, can ten thousand people arrive to watch a rugby match dressed in pink replica shirts, waving pink flags and holding heart-shaped pink balloons.

When I entered the stadium of Stade Francais it was immediately obvious that any preconceived ideas I had about rugby, its players, supporters and traditions were about to be challenged head-on. Flying in the face of sporting masculinity, the pre-match entertainment consisted of “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”.

Unlike the generic modern stadium experience, this was spectating as it used to be. Your ticket has no number so you can sit where you like and stand if you want. Home and away fans mix together and there are no big screens, no neon advertising hoardings and no executive boxes. Like so much of French culture, rugby is clinging on to its roots in the face of corporate globalization.

At either end of the Virage Paris drummers led the crowd in chants of allez, allez, allez le Stade Francais. Pink and blue flags were raised to greet every piece of good play but despite dominating for much of the first half, Stade Francais trailed Auch by nine points at halftime. The crowd, however, were not too disappointed. In sport, as in so much else, there is a distinctive French way of doing things. The home team had attempted to score tries, refusing to kick penalty goals, and this decision to play an attacking open game pleased the crowd.

February in Paris is cold and the break in play resulted in a gleeful rush to the drinks stalls below the stands. The vin chaud (hot wine) was the drink of choice and sold out quickly. In the second half Stade Francais changed their game plan. They kicked their penalties, which annoyed the crowd, and despite a home victory the final whistle brought with it disapproving boos. Winning in Paris, it seemed, is not always enough; you need to do it in a Parisian style.

Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic gamesA short walk northeast of the Stade Jean Bouin is the home of the French Open tennis tournament, Roland Garros, which is open all year for tours and visits to the Tenniseum.

Eric, our tour guide, began by taking us to Musketeer Square. “The Musketeers were four of France’s greatest tennis players. They made France the greatest tennis nation and Roland Garros is here because of what they achieved,” said Eric. He told us about their 1927 Davis Cup triumph over America, who were considered unbeatable. The reigning champions hosted the event the following year and the French Lawn Tennis Federation built Roland Garros to stage the cup. The Musketeers, Jean Borota, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste went on to win six straight Davis cup titles and the square is made up of a statue of each of them surrounding a model of the trophy.

Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic games

Eric then took us through the media center to the players’ locker rooms. “The players have to come in the media center and give an interview, win or lose, after every game,” said Eric. “A few years ago Andre Agassi lost and refused to give an interview so he was fined €40,000.”

At the start of the tournament over 100 players use this tiny space. Walking around imagining the world’s top players getting ready in such close proximity to one another makes you think about the unique atmosphere of this tournament. It would be like American football teams getting ready in the same dressing room or two boxers training in the same gym.

Our tour finished at the Tenniseum which is divided into three sections - two temporary exhibition rooms: one looking at the media equipment used throughout the history of the French Open and one a gallery of photos from recent finals. By far the most interesting, though, is the permanent exhibition which looks at the history of tennis in France.

Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic gamesThe exhibition begins with a look at Real Tennis, the predecessor of Lawn Tennis, which was first played in France during the sixteenth century. The first known book about tennis, Trattato del Giuoco della Palla, which was written in 1555 by an Italian priest, Antonio Scaino da Salo is on display.

At this time tennis was a sport played mostly by the upper classes of Parisian society. At the beginning of the twentieth century, as sport began to take a hold in the middle and working classes, the popularity of tennis began to spread, boosted no doubt by the success of the Musketeers, who each have their own section in the museum.

Towards the end of the displays there is a look back at the development of the tennis racquet. Looking at some of the small, wooden rackets of the 1900’s it is difficult to imagine anyone being able to keep a rally going for more than a few strokes.

Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic games

Throughout Paris there are hundreds of public tennis courts and one of the most beautiful places to play is the Jardin du Luxembourg in the city center, where there are several courts. The heart of the park is an octagonal pond, known as the Grand Bassin, situated in front of the Palais du Luxembourg. Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic gamesHere, students from the nearby Sorbonne University gather to chat and read, while office workers take a break from the hectic city center. Children can rent model boats to sail in the pond and in the surrounding alleys old men play the traditional French sports of petanque and boules, while socializing with a glass or two of wine.

Unlike in the rest of France, the working class have never dominated sport in Paris. It has often been seen as a status symbol to be a member of one of the city’s sporting clubs and sport has had close connections with some of the city’s famous writers, artists and political figures.

In the late nineteenth century the most famous of Paris’s velodromes, the Buffalo, was opened by the socialite and writer Tristan Bernard. His friend, the artist Toulouse-Lautrec, was a regular in the crowd and painted several famous posters to publicize the event. Several examples of his work are on display at the Montmartre museum which is located in a seventeenth century country manor on rue Cortot. The building was home to Renoir, Suzanne Valadon and her son Utrillo, as well as Raoul Dufy and many other artists, and is the oldest building standing on the famous hill.

Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic gamesMontmartre is made up of crowded, cobbled streets lined with portrait painters and leafy stairways leading to the Sacré Coeur Basilica. In the past the area was frequented by bohemian artists and writers, who were famous for their consumption of absinthe in the many cafes and bars. The museum details the history of Montmartre and its interesting residents through the artwork they produced and the entertainment venues, such as Le Chat Noir, which they opened.

The Moulin Rouge is undoubtedly the best known of all Paris’s dance halls and captured the imagination of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose numerous paintings of the dancers can be seen in the museum. Cycling also fascinated the artist, who saw it as another fashionable form of popular entertainment and several prints he created for the Buffalo can be viewed and bought in the museum’s shop. In many ways he was a revolutionary artist and he could see the potential and excitement of spectator sports at a time when others could not.

On the first floor of the museum is a statue of Saint Denis, who in 250 AD was beheaded. It is said that he put his head under his arm and headed north where two miles later he collapsed and died. The site was marked by a small shrine which became the Saint Denis Basilica but the area is perhaps more famous now as the home of the French national football and rugby teams, the Stade de France.

Exiting the metro station in Saint Denis, the Stade de France dominates the horizon. The site of the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final is one of the world’s most futuristic stadiums with its unique design allowing the stands to be moved so it can be used for different events. Guided tours take you into the museum section where you can discover how the complex structure was built and view trophies and pictures from the famous events that have taken place over the past ten years. You are then taken to the press box and into the changing rooms, which are set up as they were for the 1998 World Cup Final. Finally, you get to walk out of the tunnel into the vast arena, where ten years ago France lifted the World Cup for the first time. The French had finally won the tournament which had been created by a Parisian, Jules Rimmet.

Following France’s World Cup triumph, over one million people partied through the night on the Champs-Elysées. Gazing down the famous street from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, you can imagine what a fantastic place this must have been that night. One of the world’s most beautiful streets echoing to the “Marseillaise” and “We Are the Champions” The road covered in a sea of red, white and blue - the colors of the French national team and the colors of the Tricolour. Many hoped that the multicultural team not only reflected the color of the flag but were also a metaphor for a new multicultural France working in harmony.

The day after the final, the French sports daily, L’Equipe, sold 1.7 million copies, the highest sales figure of any paper in France, highlighting the significance of the World Cup victory. With less importance attached to regional sides, the national team is given greater priority than in other countries, and sport is seen as a way of the French expressing themselves to a global audience, both in their performance on the field and their staging of major events.

The short-term feel-good factor, however, has given way to the harsh reality that it will take more than a game of football to change the attitude of a nation. The 1998 World Cup did illustrate the power of sport in uniting people in a single cause. Unfortunately, the failure to build on this and make substantial changes to the lives of immigrants in France means that perhaps the legacy of les bleus will be confined to the field.

The World Cup celebrations on the Champs-Elysées may have been a one-off, but every year the final stage of the Tour de France means this great street comes alive to celebrate French sport. The riders make several laps of the area accompanied by feverish French commentary and though it is nearly impossible to see the finish line, the electric atmosphere makes it worth being there as the cyclists blur past you.

Although cycling had its competitive heyday in the days of Toulouse-Lautrec, with velodromes located across the city, it is still very popular in Paris both as a sport and a mode of transport and this is reflected in the number of cyclists seen on the roads. On Sundays the banks of the Seine are closed to traffic to allow cyclists, joggers and skaters to use the roads in safety. The Vélib scheme, which allows you to hire a bike, is very popular and on Sundays the banks of the river are full of riders.

Sport in Paris, Stade Jean Bouin, Tenniseum, Stade de France, Tour de France, FIFA World Cup, European Football Championships, Olympic gamesWhen people think of France they don’t immediately think of sport. In Paris sport is not thrust in your face as in some other cities; it’s more subtle. Without Parisian sport, however, there would be no FIFA World Cup, no European Football Championships, no Olympic games and no major clay court tennis tournament. Pierre de Coubertin, Jules Rimmet and the Musketeers have had profound impacts on the world of sport and sport in Paris, in its unique way, has a significant impact upon the city.

© Matt Genner

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012