Sport : 2010-2020 : An English Decade ?
It seems impossible for any sporting event between France and England to take place without references to historical rivalry being brought up, and the obligatory "will this be their Trafalgar/Waterloo/ Marignan..." statements regularly being made by commentators. Darren Tullett and Serge Simon's explore this sporting relationship in depth in their hilarious book: An age-old Sports Rivalry (Un siècle de rivalité sportive), in which they look at the centuries of competition between the two countries, which they have crammed with juicy anecdotes and memorable moments. What they also show very cleary is that it isn't simply about winning one little match or race, Franco-British sporting competitions are a matter of national pride, of territorial supremacy!
This subject is obviously one of great interest. Always up for a bit of comparison between the two nations, we have asked ourselves who of the Rose or the Rooster is set to triumph over the next exciting sporting decade? Can we predict the future? Well, as Whitney Euston once said "I believe the children are our future"- In other words: the answer lies in the young athletes, but which country is producing the stars of tomorrow and, more interestingly, how?
The French Model
When sportsmen evoke how they made their debuts in a particular sport, they often rely on the standard "it was my calling". Though, admittedly, quite presumptious, the sentence also implies that the task of learning a sport must start as early as possible . Regardless of the country, training starts relatively early (between the ages of 6 and 16). What differs, however is the organisations within which this training takes place.
In France, the most talented young athletes can make their name in three ways: First and foremost through the 167,000 clubs. These are, without a doubt, the most prolific training centres, and the federations to which they are affiliated send out scouting agents to swiftly snap up and integrate any promising youths . They give French sports their champions, especially in football. The most relevant example is undoubtedly the national association football centre named Clairefontaine, which has developed some of the best French players including Nicolas Anelka, William Gallas, and Arsenal idol Thierry Henry.
Clairefontaine training center
Secondly, they have at their disposal a unique institutional network established in the sixties to modernize top sports: the Sports Studies Section. This enables secondary and sixth-form students to combine - as the name suggests - studies with higher level sports education. About 200 French schools offer this 'one of a kind 'curriculum, which aims to produce brilliant and smart athletes. They benefit from an adapted timetable: class in the morning, sports in the afternoon. A succesful example of the programme is the Van-Der-Meersch secondary school, located Roubaix, Northern France, which offers a track-cycling sports studies section. Arnaud Tournant, a 14-time World Champion track cyclist, is its most famous alumni.
Thirdly, French school sport, even if they are not as popular as in United Kingdom, have produced some brilliant athletes. Notably, Swimmer Frédérick Bousquet, reigning European champion, who made his debuts within his school's sports association. From this we can see that high-level management combined with a wide range of sports give young athletes the necessary competitive edge for when they enter into the world of professional sports.
So how does the English system compare?
Even though England has its own great sporting history, it is impossible to say that the British system is as efficient as its French counterpart. Indeed, young people's sports in Britain are mainly based around school sports: students simply attend training sessions either before or at the end of their school day. The problem with this is that, although there is positive synergy between school and sports, there simply aren't enough infrastructures nor scouts to pick out and integrate gifted young sportsmen and women into national centres.
Here, as in the USA, the main sporting events for youths are school competitions , such as the Sainsbury's UK School Games. Lord Sebastian Coe and Paula Radcliffe, some of the most legendary British athletes, have made their name while defending the colours of Loughborough University. As strange as it may seem, it is worth noting how weakly sports education features in the traditional English school curriculum. PE is only an optional subject, whereas all French students must run a boundless number of laps to get the baccalaureate! So, are British students really lazier than their sporty counterparts?
Sainsbury's UK School Games
The definition of sport in the French Sports Code could give an explanation to this phenomenon. It is mentioned that sports can contribute to the common good, by reducing social inequalities and academic failures, and promoting health. This, in effect, amounts to saying that sport plays a key role in education, culture, social life and even integration. It is for this reason that French governments have pursued a policy of voluntarism, with the aim of increasing sports participation rates and developing professional sports. Initiated by General de Gaulle, whose “certain idea of France” could not tolerate the disastrous French performance of the Rome Olympics (no gold medals for France), some ambitious projects have been successfully completed. The “Grand Charles” was aware that France could get one of the top places in International Relations with the help of brilliant performances in some of the most popular competitions. Moreover, as a cunning strategist, he recognised that sport is a sort of “opiate of the masses”, and has an unbelievable ability to calm social unrest. In other words, sport has been one of the favourite political weapons of French governments for more than 50 years. A positive consequence of this manipulation is that France has been benefiting from excellent quality facilities. Examples of this are the High Altitude Training Camp in Font-Romeu, created in 1968, and INSEP - French National Institute of Sport and Physical Education -, a national training centre located in the Bois de Vincennes just East of Paris. Among the 300 training facility in France, it is the best known. It is a veritable hothouse of talent, producing champions such as judoka Teddy Riner and tennis woman Amélie Mauresmo. As a matter of fact, it offers the same training facilities to all of its athletes, regardless of the popularity of their sport. As a consequence, wrestlers benefit from excellent facilities, as well as basketball superstars players. It undoubtedly underpins France's amazing performance levels in less popular sports such as fencing. Indeed, D'Artagnan spiritual heirs have wone an astounding 115 medals since 1896, becoming the most successful French Olympic athletes.
United Kingdom's comeback
Nevertheless, since the end of the 70s, the ever-worsening economic situation has made France restrict its spending on sport. As a consequence, some of the best French sports centres have become outdated, such as INSEP – even if it is being refurbished with more than €200 million of new investment. Athletes, including French boxers, are now go ing overseas in order to benefit from better training facilities. In addition to this, other sportsmen have been joining private groups, for example the Largardère Team, created by the tycoon Arnaud Lagardère. Even if it disappeared on July 2010, it proved that public centres are no longer the favourite choice for athletes. It would seem that the French system, previously a gleaming example, is beginning to run out of steam.
As Whitney said "I believe Tom Daley is our future"
In contrast, England has been taking substantial measures in order to create proper sports facilities. The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, was created in 1997 as Labour came into office, which developed professional sports and made physical activities rates increase. Its action was symbolized by the promulgation of the Game Plan in 2002, which aimed to make sports considered an essential contributor to good health. Three fields have been affected by the DCMS's action. First of all, it has been trying to increase youth sport participation rates, collaborating with the Young Sport Trust organization created in 1994. You can imagine the rest: the situation was so hopeless that English authorities had to ask their French counterparts for advice. Then, a nationwide network of support services, called the English Institute of Sport, was created in order to improve the standard of English athletes. In addition to this, as they created the National Lottery in 1994, they also managed to subsidise a fantastic triple project: hosting the 2012 Olympics Games ( a blow to France), the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and, to be decided on 2 December, the 2018 Football World Cup. In a nutshell: this 15 year-long policy has given a fresh start to British sport. Not surprisingly, Great Britain won more medals than France at the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing, whereas it had been dominated for 20 years. The pragmatic decision to subsidise the more promising sports only (cycling, rowing...) worked wonders and enabled Great Britain to reach the 4th rank with 19 gold medals. Let that be an example to France that less means more perhaps !
As a consequence, (excessively) huge British spending has enabled the United Kingdom to make up for their previous sporting weakness. The Future now seems all the more promising for British athletes and they will definitely want to prove that their country is able to do justice to the awesome challenge they have taken up: organizing three of the biggest sport events in 6 years. Qui dit mieux ?