The Making of Les Bleus
Sport in France, 1958-2010
Lexington Books 2012
New Books in European StudiesNew Books in French StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in SportsNew Books Network November 14, 2013 Bruce Bergland
In 1967, an official of the French basketball federation lamented the team’s poor finish at that year’s European Championships in Finland. The French team finished sixth in their group of eight, and then lost in the first game of the knockout stage. The official noted that Europe’s top teams, such as the first-place Soviet Union, all had players over two meters tall (6’6″). The official summed up the disparity: “The giant [basketball player] is like an atomic armament. If a nation does not possess one, it is an unbalanced struggle.” The core of the complaint was simple: If France was to stand tall in the Cold War world, then it had to stand tall in the sports arena.
Historian Lindsay Krasnoff looks at this sports crisis in postwar France and the French government’s attempts to remedy it in her book The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010 (Lexington, 2012). Lindsay frames her study in two episodes of international athletic failure: the 1960 Rome Olympics, at which France won no gold medals and finished below Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey in the overall table, and the implosion of the national team at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Looking at the decades in between, Lindsay shows how leaders of the Fifth Republic, beginning with President Charles de Gaulle, sought to build a sporting culture, particularly through the training of young athletes. There have been successes. While officials once lamented the limits of French basketball talent, there are now more players from France on NBA rosters than from any other nation outside North America. But the rebellion on the practice pitch in South Africa was a reminder that the work of turning France into a consistent sporting power has been uneven. And the reactions of French officials, starting with President Sarkozy, show that this project remains one of national importance.
Note: the views that Lindsay expresses in the interview are hers alone and do not represent those of her employer, the U.S. Department of State, or the U.S. Government. Information presented here is based on publicly available, declassified sources and oral history interviews.