David Owen’s ‘Aux Armes’ is a wide-ranging journey through French history as well as sport

As Paris prepares to host the Olympic Games, the former sports editor of the Financial Times offers “an English perspective” on France’s relationship with sport…

By Philip Barker

The cover art is a spin on ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Delacroix, which hangs in the Louvre

David Owen’s study of French sport from an English perspective is superbly timed to coincide with what promises to be a spectacular summer of sport.

A committed ‘Francophile’ who lived in France for a number of years, Owen was with the Financial Times for 20 years where he became sports editor.

He was also until recently a perceptive and authoritative columnist for the respected Olympic website,

“What you may be asking, is the point of an English perspective on French sport? You might just as well seek out a sea otter’s take on kabuki,” Owen asks at the beginning.

“A penetrative appraisal of a country’s sporting life ought to be a big help in understanding what makes it tick.”

This short study is typical of Owen’s elegant writing and interspersed with humour.

Even the cover depicts a famous painting of Marianne, the national personification of France, clad in a French football shirt.

It is a wide-ranging journey through French history as well as sport, from real tennis in the 16th century to the French revolution and beyond.

In 1870, France was at war with Prussia. The subsequent defeat was to prove a pivotal moment for a seven-year-old boy named Pierre de Coubertin.

He wanted to revive the national standing of France and saw sport as a means to do so. In England, sport was well established in public schools and sports such as football, rugby union and athletics had subsequently established governing bodies with former public school pupils prominent in each.

Coubertin’s admiration is apparent in his writings and Owen’s chapter “A Cross Channel Bastille” suggests that “lifting French standards often meant playing by British rules”.

Coubertin visited schools such as Rugby as part of his research.

In 1894, he called a meeting at the Paris Sorbonne which agreed to revive the Olympics for the Modern Era.

There are chapters on the previous occasions when Paris hosted the Olympics in 1900 and 1924.

“If the British played a pre-eminent part in inventing many of today’s most popular sports, the French can claim much credit for internationalising them.”

The chapter “Internationalists Par Excellence” highlights the role Coubertin played with the Olympics and countryman Jules Rimet, who spearheaded the foundation of the FIFA World Cup.

He did not forget Henri Delaunay and the sports journalist Gabriel Hanot of L’Equipe, the great French sports newspaper.

Delaunay was the driving force for the European Championship, originally called the Nations Cup and Hanot campaigned for the European Cup, now the Champions League.

“Over the past 25 years, it would be easy to make the case that France has been the most consistently excellent national football team out there.”

The French victory in the 1998 World Cup is considered in detail and there is a chapter on how athletes from Algeria and other former French colonies have always played their part.

Readers will also enjoy his sketch of French tennis with Suzanne Lenglen and the fabled four “Musketeers” namely, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste in the 1920s and many years later, the likes of Yannick Noah.

A chapter is also devoted to the importance of Le Tour de France. “If there is a seat of French sporting passion, the Tour de France – or more accurately the sport of cycling in general – is it,” Owen insists.

Cycling contributed to a golden year in 1968 when French athletes returned from Mexico with more gold medals than at any time since 1948. In the stadium, Collette Besson surged to an “unimaginable” victory in the women’s 400m.

That Besson beat Britain’s “Golden Girl” Lillian Board gave the victory added resonance for Owen, then a youngster watching on television at home.

Earlier, Jean-Claude Killy had set the tone with his three alpine skiing golds at the Winter Olympics on French soil in Grenoble.

There is a very useful register of French sporting champions to complete this study.

At under 100 pages, it will be a very handy companion in Paris.

Yet although it is intended as an essay, it will also leave you wanting to know more.

‘Aux Armes! Sport and the French – an English perspective’ by David Owen, published by Forward Press, priced £9.99.

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