Hints for Newcomers – Hindsights for Old-Timers: Sports in France
by Shari Leslie Segall
When your spouse was offered a high-paid, top-executive position in Paris, did you declare, “We’ll move to the most beautiful city in the world only if I can find a step-aerobics class catering to my age group and ability level”? Have you said to yourself, “Now that I have played tennis in the Bois de Boulogne, skied in Grenoble and run the Marathon de Nantes, what could possibly be left for me to do?” Does your overpowering attraction to moelleux au chocolat crash full-force into your seeming inability to chase its pernicious effects from your thighs? If the answer to any of these is a resounding “YES!” you have come to the right article.
France is often criticized by Anglos for not having the kinds of school/university-based athletic programs common in their native countries. “The battle of Waterloo,” the Duke of Wellington is (apocryphally) noted as having said, “was won on the playing fields of Eton.” But France has something that even the sports-crazed United States does not: A Minister of Sports, whose current official title is Ministre de la Ville, de la Jeunesse et des Sports (Minister of Urban Affairs, Youth and Sports) and who is sometimes recruited from the pantheon of famous athletes (the Olympic, World and European gold-medalist judoka David Douillet was Minister of Sports from September 2011 until May 2012).
And the key to understanding where-if not in school-all those young David Douillets, Jean-Claude Killys (Olympic and World gold-medalist skier) and Marie-José Perecs (Olympic, World and European gold-medalist sprinter) got their starts can be found in the Sports Ministry’s mission statement, which in part highlights a responsibility for policies governing la vie associative (“association life,” or community organizations). In France, the laps not being swum in college pools, the meters not being dashed on junior-high tracks, the baskets not being scored in schoolyard courts are more than made up for in the country’s approximately 170,000 publicly-supported sports associations (you read that right: one hundred seventy thousand, or a nationwide average of 2.8 sports associations per 1000 residents!): from the three-member badminton club run out of your neighbor’s kitchen in a hamlet of several thousand inhabitants to the company-sized Paris-based semi-pro soccer structure taking the tournament circuit by storm.
A brief glance at even a partial-that’s: partial-list of official sports practiced, prized and promoted in France should remedy any misconception that the sacred weekly four-hour Sunday lunches at grandma’s mean a lack of interest in working out: track and field, rowing, aikido, badminton, model-aircraft making (yes, that’s considered a sport; no, don’t ask), aeronautics, aerostation (operating lighter-than-air craft), clay-pigeon shooting, baseball, softball, cricket, basketball, billiards, bowling, English boxing, French boxing (i.e., kick boxing), canoeing, kayaking, sand yachting, orienteering, cycling, dance, fencing, soccer, American football, golf, gymnastics, weight lifting, handball, hockey (field and ice), javelin, water jousting, water rescue, (general) first-aid and rescue, judo, jujitsu, kendo, karate, wrestling, mountain climbing, motorcycling, powerboating, muay thai, swimming, tennis, paddle tennis, table tennis, parachuting, Basque pelota, triathlon, pentathlon, gliding, powered ultra-light gliding, polo, skiing, water skiing, dog sledding and pulka-skiing, pétanque, fishing, fly fishing, hiking, roller skating, rugby, snowboarding, auto sports, speleology (cave exploration/study), squash, surfing, taekwondo, tai chi, qi gong, shooting, archery, baton twirling, sailing, free flight, volleyball, chess (see: model-aircraft making), horse riding, underwater diving. A…partial…list, we said.
“I want them all!” you’re screaming. And rightly so. Luckily, the only French institutions better organized than the athletic clubs are the city halls, the mairies (in larger cities they’re called hôtels de ville), to which in the pre-Internet age you could walk (or jog, bike, hike-and in winter, sled and snowboard) for beautifully written, photo-peppered, exquisitely detailed flyers, brochures, or, especially in the case of Paris, doorstop-size books about the activities available in the environs, and on whose websites today you can explore the offerings from the comfort of your wifi-enabled canoe, kayak, sailboat, lighter-than-air craft, rowboat, sand yacht, or powerboat. The effort you’ll need to put into finding this info will be way less than that required for following through with the activities whose details you will thus unearth: Into your search engine put merely Associations sportives [name of city, town, hamlet, community, neighborhood, arrondissement, etc.] and the only thing left to do will be jump into your gear and…GO!
(If, on the other hand, when your spouse was offered a high-paid, top-executive position in Paris, you declared, “We’ll move to the most beautiful city in the world only if I can find a macramé class, Basque-language lessons and PowerPoint-perfection training,” a future “Hints and Hindsights”-in the works-might be just what you’re looking for.)
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.
Editor’s note: You can also watch spectator sports in Paris such as the Superbowl, 6 Nations, NBA and the World Series, check at the pubs and sports bars such as The Moose. And there are also plenty of associations of English speakers playing sports in English in France: rugby, baseball, etc. But why not join a French one – it’ll be a great language-practicing and friend-making experience.