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France and Olympism: over a century of firsts

France has played a prominent role in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Olympism organised its rebirth here at the turn of the 20th century and the country then hosted the Games no fewer than five times from 1900 to 1992. The story that the Games and France are writing together now spans three centuries, from the inaugural Olympic Congress on the revival of the Olympic games that Pierre de Coubertin convened at the Sorbonne in 1894 to the Paris 2024 Games 130 years later. This eventful story is sprinkled with momentous developments and firsts that have shaped Games history.

The second Olympic Games, in 1900

The first modern Olympic Games were held in Greece, as a tribute to the ones in antiquity. The Games of the II Olympiad were organised in Paris and lasted over five months, from May to October 1900. The Paris 1900 Games were included in the 1900 Exposition Universelle, which was much better known at the time than the recently revived Olympics, to draw part of the crowd that the exhibition attracted. Unfortunately, the exhibition’s organisers referred to the sport events as the “International competition of physical exercises and sports” and that was the name that stuck. The term “Olympic” was used so rarely that many spectators and contenders were unaware, and remained unaware for years (sometimes until their death), that they had taken part in the Olympic Games.

Notwithstanding this image-related issue, the first Olympic Games in France were an important milestone: 997 athletes, including the first 22 women ever, from 24 countries, took part in the 95 events. British tennis player Charlotte Cooper made history in Paris by becoming the first woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal, in the women’s singles tournament.

Paris 1924: the last Games in Paris before a century-long interlude

Six Olympiads later, the Games were once again organised in Paris – and around it, as the event had grown since 1900. This time, the Games were properly referred to as “Olympics” and attracted very considerable interest in the capital city. That year, the programme included 126 trials in 17 sports, and 135 of the 3,089 athletes vying for victory were women. The event was also gaining prominence around the world; 44 countries on all continents sent athletes to compete. The 1924 Games lasted over four months. An art competition took place first, reviving a tradition from the Olympic Games of old, when sport and cultural tournaments were combined. Architecture, literature, painting, sculpture and music competitions took place from 15 March to 15 April 1924, in the build-up to the sports competitions, which were held from 4 May to 27 July.

The Paris 1924 Games were the first to feature the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”), which Fr Henri Didon had coined and Pierre de Coubertin borrowed and promoted.

And Paris invented the Olympic Village

The Paris Games were already blazing new trails in 1924, when they introduced the notion of an Olympic Village – which every Games since then have adopted.

The first ever Olympic Village was built near the Stade Olympique in Colombes, north-west of Paris. It was an array of temporary wooden cabins, with three beds in each. The athletes were served three meals a day, and shared the toilets, showers and refectory. The village had a currency exchange bureau, dry-cleaner’s, hairdresser’s, newsagent and post office. Unlike the ones after it, the village in 1924 was not built to be used after the Games.

The location of the arenas and the village spread the celebration into the towns skirting Paris. So the Greater Paris area was involved in the 1924 Olympics – as it is in the 2024 Games. The Olympic Stadium and Village in Colombes, the rowing basin in Argenteuil, the hunting grounds in Versailles and Issy les Moulineaux, the Bagatelle and Saint Cloud polo fields and the other venues brought the excitement of the Games to the entire region.

Chamonix 1924 : history’s first Winter Games

The Paris 1924 Games were not the only ones, or the first ones, to be held in France that year. They followed International Winter Sports Week, which was staged in Chamonix from 25 January to 4 February 1924 and was sponsored by the International Olympic Committee. There had been some ice sports events at previous Olympics (for instance ice hockey at the Antwerp Games in the summer of 1920) but, retrospectively, the competitions in Chamonix in 1924 became known as the inaugural Winter Olympic Games.

The 258 athletes included 11 women and came from 16 nations. They took part in 16 trials involving 6 disciplines. The programme did not yet include sports that have since become Olympic mainstays, such as alpine skiing, but the event was nevertheless a hit with the public: it attracted more than 10,000 paying spectators in total, which prompted the IOC to organise the subsequent Winter Olympics.

The Scandinavian countries, which had initially been reluctant to take part in and endorse the event, stole the show at the first Winter Olympics. The two contenders who won the most medals were Clas Thunberg (Finland) with five medals including three golds, and Thorleif Haug (Norway) with three golds. In all, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish athletes walked away with 30 of the event’s 49 medals.

Grenoble 1968 : stepping into modernity

The Winter Olympics returned to France 44 years later for their tenth instalment. They were held in Grenoble, a flat city that has the advantage of being surrounded by mountains. The nearby Belledonne, Vercors and Grandes Rousses massifs hosted the events on slopes and Grenoble hosted the tournaments on ice. One highlight at the Grenoble Games was the French athletes’ prowess in alpine skiing (this discipline had been added to the programme at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Games, in 1936). Jean-Claude Killy won the three tournaments he took part in, at Chamrousse, a resort in the Belledonne range overlooking Grenoble; Marielle Goitschel won the gold medal in the women’s slalom tournament.

Pioneering Games

The Games in Grenoble also gave the world of Olympism its fair share of firsts – in the history of technology and in the history of the Games. They were the first Games to be broadcast in colour, which was no small feat at the time. The Grenoble 1968 Organising Committee also gave Olympism its first mascot, Shuss. Unofficial though it was, Shuss was used on keychains, magnets, clocks and myriad other items, and soon became extremely popular among Grenoble’s people. It is fair to say that Shuss’s success is a new development because all Olympic Games since then, starting with Munich four years later in 1972, have had a mascot.

Albertville 1992 : the Games take over the Tarentaise Valley

Sixty-eight years after the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix in 1924, and 24 years after the ones in Grenoble, the Games were back in the French Alps. This time they took over Albertville and the neighbouring Tarentaise and Beaufortain valleys.  From 8 to 23 February 1992, the Albertville Olympics welcomed 1,801 athletes including 488 women, from 64 countries around the world, to take part in 57 contests.

With its unrivalled array of expansive skiing areas nearby – including Val d’Isère, Tignes, Courchevel, La Plagne and Méribel –, the Tarentaise valley provided the venues for all the tournaments except cross-country skiing and the biathlon (which were held in Les Saisies, in the Beaufortain valley) and the skating competitions (which took place in Albertville). The Games benefitted the Savoie area in general and the Tarentaise valley in particular in several ways: they spurred its development and opened up the area with the construction of new infrastructure, especially roads, which were built to make travel more convenient for fans and facilitate the logistics surrounding the Games. When the Games were over, the area’s resorts made the most of the new facilities, and of the fresh interest in winter sports that the Games had generated, to attract growing numbers of tourists and to continue to expand.

Reinventing opening ceremonies

The opening ceremony, produced by Philippe Decouflé, impressed TV viewers with a full immersion in a magical universe interlacing imagery, music and millimetric choreography featuring close to 3,000 artists. At the height of the ceremony, the last torch bearer appeared with a Savoyard boy. The torch bearer’s name had been kept secret until the last minute, and it was none other than Michel Platini – a total surprise. Albertville 1992 ushered opening and closing ceremonies into a new dimension, and rewrote the rules from the ceremonies before it.

Combining the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the first time

Albertville was the first city ever to host both the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, in 1992. One month after the end of the Olympics, the Winter Paralympics took place from 25 March to 1 April, and the 79 trials took place in Tignes for practical reasons. Tignes had also hosted the Olympic freestyle (moguls) skiing competition, which Frenchman Edgar Grospiron won, a month earlier.

Paris 2024 : rewriting the rules – again

Thirty-two years after Albertville 1992, Paris 2024 is planning to do what France has done every time it has organised the Games: push back the boundaries. Holding the first carbon-neutral Games, the first gender-equal Games, and the first Games to include competitions that everyone is welcome to take part in: that is what Paris 2024 is aiming to do, to honour France’s Olympic heritage and take it to the next level.