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.
BOXING September 12, 2009 Russia tops the AIBA World Boxing Championships with a total of 8 medals. The highest level of amateur boxing next to the Olympics, the AIBA was first held in 1974 and is today a biennial competition of 10 different weight classes. Cuban heavyweight Felix Savon holds the record for most gold medals (6) at the AIBA.
BASEBALL September 9, 1999 Baseball pitcher Catfish Hunter dies at the age of 53 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Throwing from 1965 -1979, the North Carolina native spent his career playing for the Royals, Athletics and Yankees. A 5x World Series champ and 8x All-Star, Hunter was also known as baseball’s first big-money free agent.
FOOTBALL September 10, 1989 Five days after hitting a home run with the New York Yankees against the Seattle Mariners, Deion Sanders scores his first NFL touchdown in a return punt with the Atlanta Falcons. Sanders played 14 seasons in the NFL during the period 1989-2005, but he also put in 9 seasons as a part-timer with MLB in 1989-2001.
TENNIS September 5, 1979 At 16 years and 9 months, Tracy Austin becomes the youngest singles champion at the US Open following her defeat of Chris Evert at the final. Over the next several years, the talented prodigy from California reached the quarterfinals & semifinals at the other three Grand Slams but chronic injuries forced her retirement in 1984.