The French: International Sports Pioneers
It’s not all wine, cheese and perfume in the tri-colored nation. The land of kings and castles has actually been a leading pioneer in the world of sports for well over a century.
Inspired by the ancient Greek games, French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin launched the modern Olympics in 1896, a global athletic extravaganza that eventually grew to 88 participating countries.
France ranks 4th among nations in the total medals count and after the U.S., hosted the most Olympiads- 2 summer and 3 winter games. Blessed with the Alps, the country held the first official winter competitions in 1924.
Around the same time, another Frenchman was busy pushing the international boundaries of sports. As a member of FIFA’s founding organization, sports club owner Jules Rimet kicked off the first World Cup soccer tournament in 1930.
Uruguay hosted the inaugural Cup but due to time and distance, only four European teams chose to compete- France, Belgium, Romania, Yugoslavia. All voyaged together to South America on a boat, with Rimet carrying the trophy in his bag.
The Jules Rimet Trophy became the hallmark prize of the World Cup until 1970, after which it was renamed the FIFA World Cup Trophy.
France hosted the World Cup twice, in 1938 and in 1998, the only time its national squad lifted the mark of victory.
Recognized more as quintessential “francais” is the Tour de France. The French had patented the first pedal-driven bicycle in 1866 and even coined the term of its namesake.
The multi-stage Tour de France got its start in 1903 when the newspaper L’Auto promoted the two-wheeled chase to increase its own circulation. The yellow-colored jersey worn by pack leaders today is traced to the newspaper’s original tint.
Two of the top three Tour champions to date have been French- Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault- each with 5 wins.
Decades later, L’Auto morphed into the French sports daily L’Equipe, whose journalists played a crucial role in establishing the Champions League soccer tournament, Europe’s most prestigious club competition. The first Final took place in 1956 at the Parc des Princes in Paris; Real Madrid defeated Stade Reims 4-3.
With France leading the world in automobile production in the early 1900’s, it’s not a surprise that car racing found a home in Gaul among speed enthusiasts.
Today’s Formula One is a descendant of the original Grand Prix, first run in 1906 in Le Mans and under the auspices of the Automobile Club de France. Translating to the “Great Prize”, the terminology endured and so have the open-wheeled, Grand Prix races that spread to 21 countries around the world.
Off the road and on the water, French luxury company Louis Vuitton has had a sponsor partnership with the America’s Cup since 1983, one of the longest in the sporting world.
Both founded in the 1850’s, the leading international fashion house and the holy grail of yacht racing have recently renewed a title partnership that is broader and deeper yet.
The French, undisputed pioneers in international sporting tournaments.
BASKETBALL February 20, 2010 Kirk Hinrich of the Chicago Bulls breaks a franchise record, scoring his 771st three-point field goal and clearing the 770 mark set by Ben Gordon. Coming out of the University of Kansas, Hinrich put in stints with the Bulls, Wizards and Hawks during his NBA career from 2003-2016. He was a member of Team USA when they won bronze at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan.
HOCKEY February 15, 2000 NJ Devils’ Martin Brodeur becomes the first ever NHL goalie to receive credit for a game-winning goal. Facing the Flyers, he was the last Devil to touch the puck before it went into the opponent’s net when one of the Flyers’ own players accidentally scored his own goal. Considered one of the best goalies of all time, Brodeur won 3 Stanley Cups and 2 Olympic gold medals representing Canada.
MOTOR RACING February 18, 1990 Derrike Cope wins the 32nd edition of the Daytona 500 stock car race. Driving a Chevrolet for the Whitcomb Racing team and winning his first NASCAR chase, Cope beat out runner-up Terry Labonte and third place finisher Bill Elliott. Dale Earnhardt led the pack for 155 laps, or ¾ of the race and came short towards the end when his car ran over a piece of metal on the track, shredding his right rear tire.
OLYMPICS February 15, 1980 American Eric Heiden wins the 500 meter speed skating race at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Wisconsin native wrapped up the tournament with a total of 5 gold medals, including the 500, 1000, 1500, 5000, and 10000 meter chases. Heiden broke 4 Olympic records and 1 world record in the competitions and is considered the best overall athlete- sprint and long- in the sport’s history.