Sports in France have an erratic history. They were prominent and strong during the Middle Ages, but they faded from view later on as the French placed more emphasis on learning and intellect.

Professor John McClelland, who has a hand in four books on French literature and sport, went into detail about the variability of sport in France in Sport and the French: an erratic trajectory from Du Guesclin to Coubertin, an event hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs on Friday.

McClelland began his talk by showing pictures of Collège National Technique et Moderne, a collegiate school he attended in 1956. He expected the school to have the same kind of athletic centres as schools in Toronto, where he intended to go originally. However, there was nothing of the sort.

A picture of a courtyard at the school, outlined by carefully pruned trees, displayed a barren courtyard that had “no possibility of any athletic facilities.” McClelland stated that people would play aimlessly through the courtyard during the two-hour lunch break, but there was “absolutely no organization of any kind.”

McClelland went into greater detail about the detached nature of France’s relationship with sport. He brought up Pierre de Coubertin, who is credited with the revival of the Olympics in Europe in 1896 after many others’ efforts had failed, and how Coubertin received very little acknowledgement for his achievement despite having attended the games himself.

From there, he dug deeper into the history of sport in France, specifically looking at the extent to which tennis captured the country in the Middle Ages. French monarchs such as François I and Henri II ensured that tennis courts were built within their palace, resulting in a trend throughout Europe to include tennis courts as a part of a standard palace design.

McClelland referenced a quote by English traveler Robert Dellington, who, writing about France in the 1600s, said that “there were more tennis courts than churches in France and more tennis players than beer drinkers in England.”

The avidness with which the French played tennis allowed for the sport to continue to flourish moving forward. Alongside tennis, fencing and equestrian sports also remained popular in France due to their upper-class status.

McClelland argued that the reason why few other sports were able to flourish in France is because the French liked precision. And sport was something that was not necessarily precise. In some instances it couldn’t even be judged. He mentioned that some books written by the French were done in an attempt to approach sport with more intellect, something that the French valued. In doing so, sports became very constricting, failing to encourage participation.

From a passive standpoint, the French were still interested in watching sports. McClelland artfully described seeing people pressing their faces up to the windows of the electronics store to watch soccer games on the TVs that few people had in 1956. However, it is important to note that while the Germans and the Spanish baptized the sport with its own name, Fußball and Fùtbol, the French never did. McClelland said that “sport of this kind somehow remains foreign, no matter what the enthusiasm is.”