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.
BASEBALL April 2, 2010 Former MLB pitcher Mike Cuellar dies at the age of 72. A 2x World Series champion and 4x All-Star, Cuellar started off with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959 and played for 5 teams, spending the most years with the Baltimore Orioles. He won the AL Cy Young award in his first season with the dynastic Orioles and was their starting pitcher at the 1969 World Series against the NY Mets. Cuellar closed his career with an ERA of 3.14 and 1,632 strikeouts.
BASKETBALL April 2, 2000 At the 19th Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship, the Connecticut Huskies defeat the Tennessee Volunteers 71-52. Led by their famed coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies claimed their second national title. They would win another 9 championships and become the nation’s most successful women’s basketball program to date. The Connecticut ladies dispatched Penn State at the Semi-finals before taking on Tennessee for the crown.
GOLF April 8, 1990 Nick Faldo wins the 54th annual Masters Tournament held in Augusta, Georgia. Shooting a 278 (-10) and tying Raymond Floyd in the final round after the latter bogeyed on the 16th hole, Faldo emerged victorious in the playoff showdown. It was his second consecutive win at the Masters and third of what would be six career majors. Born in Herdforshire, England, Faldo turned pro in 1976 and has won more majors than any other modern European golfer.
OLYMPICS April 12, 1980 The U.S. Olympic committee announces their boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A total of 66 countries chose not to attend the games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, 80 other nations did agree to send their athletes to the first Olympics that were held in a communist country. Four years later, the Russians and their East European allies would follow-up with a boycott of the Los Angeles games.