They want it but they don’t much like it

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One spring evening in 1998, Bernard Laporte returned to his 13th-floor apartment in Paris carrying a trophy under his arm. A neighbour, passing in the corridor, asked: “Did you buy it?”

“No. It’s our trophy,” explained Laporte. “We became French rugby champions yesterday evening.” Laporte, today coach of France, was then coaching the Parisian club Stade Français.

“Ah!” exclaimed the neighbour, “So that’s why you weren’t home.”

Laporte says this conversation captures the place of rugby in Paris. In fact, it also captures the place of sport in Paris. On Wednesday the International Olympic Committee will probably award the city the Olympics of 2012. Having lived here three years now, I can say the Games could not go to a less sports-loving city. Paris’s peculiarities make it a freakish exception in the age of mass sport.

Of course even Parisians occasionally follow sport. Before the war thousands would gather outside the Press Agency to await the outcomes of big boxing matches. People also flocked to cycling races in the Vel d’Hiv stadium, later notorious as the site where Jews were rounded up during the occupation.

But Parisians never got into the habit of watching the same sports club each weekend. Football, in particular, didn’t catch on for decades. In 1930, when Sète football club’s chairman showed up at the Gare de Lyon carrying the French cup his team had just won, he had to buy a separate second-class ticket for it, writes the British academic Geoff Hare in his book Football in France.

Into the 1970s, no Parisian club in any sport attracted anything like a regular crowd. Hare suggests the problem: most Parisians long remained transplanted provincials, still identifying with their villages or small towns of origin. They didn’t support Parisian clubs.

Furthermore, Paris’s strong intellectual caste mostly disdained sport. François Truffaut, in his canonical 1959 film Les 400 coups, depicts football as yet another of the horrors that adults impose on boys. Early in the film, an absurdly enthusiastic gym teacher marches his school class through Paris to go and play football. The teacher, dressed in shorts, jogs down the street while doing silly arm exercises. Behind him the boys peel off en route. Later, when the main character Antoine is in remand school and forced to play in an appalling match, he crawls under the fence and makes his escape that ends the film.

In 1970, Paris finally acquired an ambitious football club: Paris St Germain. Short of fans, in 1979 it began offering the under-16s ten matches for ten francs, a scheme that eventually spawned the thuggish Boulogne Kop, still with us today. In 1991, the television channel Canal Plus decided to stimulate French interest in football by buying and improving PSG. The city’s mayor, at that time Jacques Chirac, came up with subsidies. In short, Paris’s sole top-division club – where London and Moscow have half a dozen each – is a recent concoction of businessmen and politicians. Today you can live in Paris ignorant of PSG’s existence. Even in the stadium the shaven-headed white fans at one end and the multicolored ones at the other mostly chant abuse at each other while ignoring the football.

Stade Français, the rugby club, is a similarly Frankensteinian creation. A decade ago the businessman Max Guazzini decided it was absurd that Paris’s best club was playing in French rugby’s third tier. When they were promoted, Guazzini wept as their two travelling fans ran a lap of honour.

This spring, Stade Français reached Europe’s Heineken Cup final, drawing two crowds of more than 40,000 on the way. But this merely proves that Parisians like big events. It’s true in all sports: the finish of the Tour de France, the tennis at Roland Garros and the football World Cup are always packed. Last night’s Golden League meeting here sold 75,000 tickets, a world record for a one-day athletics event.

Yet even at big events, Parisians remain critics rather than fans. They regularly jeer French tennis players, while the French football team sometimes takes so much abuse that it flees Paris for the provinces. Even the brilliant Ronaldinho was occasionally jeered when playing for PSG.

Outside big events, Parisian life passes largely devoid of sport. It’s almost taboo to wear sports kit on the street – even PSG players have refused to wear club blazers in town – while muscle tone does not enter the Parisian idea of beauty. The very few joggers in parks here are fanatical runners, whereas in London or New York most people with sexual ambitions occasionally go running. Nor do Parisian men on walks with their girlfriends listen to football matches through earphones, as Italian men do.

Yet almost all Parisians want to host the Olympics. The IOC’s polls put support here at 85 per cent, higher than in any other bidding city except Madrid.

Even demonstrators against the proposed Olympic tennis dome hand out leaflets saying, “Yes to the Olympics, No to cement in the Bois de Boulogne”. When a general strike was called the day IOC inspectors arrived in town in March, many strikers wore “Paris 2012” T-shirts.

Philippe Baudillon, leader of Paris’s bid, showed me private polling indicating that the social group least enthusiastic about hosting the Games were Front National voters – and even 71 per cent of them support the bid. People think it would be fun, with street parties, and they’ve been promised they won’t have to pay taxes for it. Still, they haven’t gone into a quasi-religious patriotic ecstasy about it the way Sydneysiders, Athenians and Beijingers did.

Sport probably fills some terrible void in modern life that just doesn’t exist in Paris.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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