Sport and physical culture in Occupied France

Posted by Chris Hart - Tuesday, 19 Apr 2022


By Keith Rathbone

On March 18, 2022 the Russian four-time Olympic medallist Evgeny Rylov attended the “For a world without Nazism” rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. During the pro-war rally, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated Rylov and nine other Olympians. As the Russian national anthem played, the athletes on stage waved their medals, in a very thinly veiled reference to the International Olympic Committee’s ban of Russian symbols during the Games for the country’s widespread and state managed doping program.

In response to Rylov’s presence at the pro-war event, the Fédération internationale de natation (FINA) opened an investigation in Rylov for bringing the sport into disrepute. His biggest sponsor – Speedo – ended its association with the swimmer. On March 23, Rylov struck back and announced his refusal to participate in the World Championships because FINA refused toa allow Belarussian and Russian athletes to compete under the flags of their nations. Putin joined Rylov’s protest, complaining about Russia being cancelled by concert directors, theatre programmers, and international sporting organizations.  

Putin and Rylov’s complaints have struck a nerve and their appeals rely on the notion that sports is and should be apolitical. Any history of sports, however, necessarily exposes its political overtones and undertones. Sport is and always has been explicitly political.

I came to my own interest in sports history through a tiny fact: the total number of registered football players swelled from fewer than 160,000 players in 1939 to more than 280,000 in 1944. How did French football grow so much during the war years and why did it?

My research shows that interwar and wartime France, sport was unambiguously a political realm, even if leading French sportsmen including the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, and the FIFA’s most famous President, Jules Rimet, averred sports apoliticism. In Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, I unpack the ways in which French governments from the left and the right, from the interwar through to the postwar, mobilized sports to expand the biopolitical potential of the French imperial nation-state. French sports administrators, club presidents, and physical cultural ministers promoted athleticism to build healthier men and women. They saw sport and physical culture as shaping bodies: prepare men for labor and the military, readying women for marriage and motherhood. They also understood athletic competition to help form minds and spirits.

“Cover” Education generale et sports (Paris), Mar. 1943. 

The first two chapters document the interwar and wartime era government’s efforts to shape sport from the top-down. My work focuses most explicitly on the efforts of Vichy France’s Sports Ministry, the Commissariat général de l’éducation générale et aux sports, an overarching sports and physical culture ministry, which aimed to use athletics to revitalize the nation from 1940 until 1944. Under the leadership of the famous tennis star Jean Borotra, who served as the Commissaire general, the CGEGS constructed hundreds of new sporting facilities, developed extensive pedagogical systems, hired and trained thousands of coaches and teachers, and organized a nationwide sports bureaucracy that spanned the zones of Occupation dictated by the Germans and Italians.

The Vichy state’s largess helped to create a golden age of French sport – during the war – in which the number of registered athletes, male and female, nearly doubled in most sports. At the same time, in spite of the state’s best efforts, sport was also politicized by ordinary people who can transform the state’s efforts towards their own personal goals. Their agendas were diverse and incorporated their pre-war desires and their wartime needs. Sporting associations took state money to fund larger stadiums; federations lobbied the state in fights with their sports rivals; and athletes used Vichy francs to help train resistance fighters.

“Cover” Education generale et sports (Paris), Jul. 1943. 

In short, my book Sport and physical culture in Occupied France illustrates how athletes, clubs, and federations took Vichy’s efforts and translated them to serve their own plans. In doing so, my research illuminates the nature of power under authoritarianism. the state organized a centralized physical cultural program meant to control and discipline French people. Instead, these state sponsored activities empowered athletes and sporting associations to use the state’s resources to accomplish their own agendas. Agency was so diffuse that almost everyone, even groups traditionally assumed to be almost powerless, could take part in it and thus alternatively challenge, remake, and serve the state’s objectives.  Schoolchildren, amateur sportsmen, and even Jewish sporting organizations had their role to play.  I reveal an ‘Innovative France’ in which individuals and organizations learned to survive and even thrive despite the dual authoritarian regimes of the German Occupation and the Vichy government. 

Just as sporting stories today about Putin and Rylov are relegated to the sports pages, my research required me to rediscover material not widely covered in the English language sources and read against the grain of material that was marginalized culturally and spatially. In Lille, Paris and Toulouse I found rich archives and repositories. I worked not only in national archives, but also in sporting associations, diocesan repositories, and people’s living rooms that held club records, newspaper clippings, and old memorabilia. These sports sources are dispersed because they are not considered central to the state’s activities, but athletic life has long been a major focus of governments. Sport’s marginalization is not inevitable if we realize that it is always political – cannot be apolitical – and offers new ways for looking into the central questions in the historical discipline. How does power work, what is the relationship between the state and civil society, and how do our conflicts large and small reverberate through our sites of personal and public power?

Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life

By Keith Rathbone

Sport and physical culture in Occupied France is a scholarly and readable account of French sport during the Vichy regime. It explores two competing phenomena: the state’s promotion of physical culture to rehabilitate French people during the Occupation and athletes’ and sporting associations’ use of the state’s efforts to serve their own agendas.

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