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France Sporting Culture

Leadership

How to create and sustain cultural change – notes from the Olympic hosts 

Published 30 May 2024 in Leadership • 10 min read

As Paris gets ready for this summer’s Olympic Games, we consider what the French organizers can teach businesses about embedding and maintaining cultural change

Few business insiders would immediately associate the Paris 2024 Games with lessons in how to create and sustain cultural change. They would be more likely to dial in on the challenging issues of security, hospitality, crowd control, and infrastructure that confront hosts in the lead-up to the start of festivities. French culture is not typically synonymous with sports, even as the Made in France brand has flexed its muscles. But the hosts have worked hard to build a sporting culture into the national fabric.

French teams and athletes have consistently won top honors at international and professional levels for more than 25 years. Milestones such as the 1998 and 2018 FIFA World Cup victories, the 2001 and 2009 women’s EuroBasket crown, and the 2020 Tokyo handball gold medals helped France snag second place in the 2023 Greatest Sporting Nation rankings for the second year in a row based on elite competition results. But such accolades are also underpinned by the regular cycles of the global sports calendar. Season in, season out, the country is the leading all-time supplier of non-North American talent to the NBA and the world’s second-biggest exporter of professional football talent.

Sport hasn’t historically been at the top of France’s cultural menu, but it is hoped that it might finally take root as a key legacy of Paris 2024. Leaders and internal team managers can unearth new ideas for how to embed lasting cultural change and translate these lessons to their teams and organizational contexts from the French learning curve.

But the results did not meet expectations, as the country’s Olympians won just two silver and three bronze medals – a finish that, without a single gold medal performance, was perceived by the government as a humiliation.

The ‘zero hour’ of French sports

It took an unprecedented crisis – a humiliation on the international stage in 1960 – to nudge the nation toward change. The catalyst was the summer’s Rome Games, the first widely televised to a global audience. There was an expectation that French athletes would do well in certain key sports, including fencing and basketball, “the most ‘intelligent’ individual sport […] and team sport […] in short, our ‘favorable’ (Olympic) sports,” according to one late 1950s assessment by the National Institute of Sports.

But the results did not meet expectations, as the country’s Olympians won just two silver and three bronze medals – a finish that, without a single gold medal performance, was perceived by the government as a humiliation. “President de Gaulle was reported to be enraged,” reported the New York Times on how these results deflated the image the statesman wanted to project of a revived, rejuvenated France.

They also contributed to a general sense of a country in crisis. Not only was Paris’ place within the international world order in flux thanks to the bipolar Cold War tensions and the loss of the French empire through bloody wars and decolonization, it also confronted challenges at home, including anxiety over how to assimilate the unprecedented youth bulge of the baby-boomers and new waves of immigrants from Europe, Africa, and Asia into the state’s social fabric.

Sports were viewed as one way to help alleviate things, from cultivating soft power abroad to incorporating younger or newer citizens into public life. It was not just for show, but also to boost morale. “Too many young French people have the feeling – justified or not – of living in a time of decline,” the report observed. “The best among them must be able to prove in international competitions the continuity of French vigor and, if true that it’s weakened, its rebirth.”

Patrouille de France
“Understanding how France sought to build and embed a culture to ameliorate public regard for sport illuminates core steps that translate far beyond the field.”

Cultivating a culture

As any leader or manager knows, trying to change organizational dynamics can be fraught, for alteration doesn’t come easily or quickly. Research shows that it takes anywhere from three to five years to implement substantial change. Yet, it’s undisputed that fostering a strong institutional culture is beneficial for all, with some 94% of executives and 88% of employees in agreement, according to Deloitte. Understanding how France sought to build and embed a culture to ameliorate public regard for sport illuminates core steps that translate far beyond the field.

magnification glass on the left on empty paper background

1. Understand the underlying issues

After disappointing results in the Rome Games, the de Gaulle government commissioned an in-depth study to autopsy the perceived sporting humiliation, which identified several root causes. Some, such as a lack of sporting infrastructure and financial means for the country’s elite athletes to practice, were comparatively easier to solve through a series of multi-year building and investment plans. Other factors proved more problematic and not easily remedied, namely a baby-boom generation uninterested in sports and, interrelated, the absence of a national sports culture.

Worth

2. Recognize a cultural feature and enshrine its worth

Tackling these issues required a far more multidimensional approach, and several attempts were made to create and embed an athletic ethos. The first was to signal from executive leadership – in this case President Charles de Gaulle – that sporting triumphs were acknowledged and valued. In 1966, six athletes were enshrined as Chevaliers of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest merit, including 1960 Rome 1,500m silver medalist Michel Jazy. They were the first of many Olympians to enter the pantheon of honor.

The move to inscribe athletes as heroes in service of the state was an attempt to put them on an equal footing with other cultural arbiters who had contributed to the country. But at the everyday level, while certain athletes – such as alpine ski champion Jean-Claude Killey and footballing stars Michel Platini and Zinédine Zidane – were revered, the worth of elite and aspiring elite athletes was not readily evident to many parts of society, even in the 2000s. Diandra Tchatchouang, a bronze medalist with the 2020 Tokyo women’s basketball team who serves on the Paris 2024 Athletes’ Commission, recalls how, as a kid in a special sport-study program in school, some teachers thought the student-athletes were less intelligent than their non-sporty peers.

Under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron, however, the state has sought to recognize and enshrine the feats of its elite athletes more fully. Following Tokyo 2020, a mass celebration festival was held at the Place de Trocadero in Paris to celebrate the country’s medal-winning national teams in handball (gold: men and women), volleyball (gold: men), and basketball (silver: men; bronze: women). Moreover, Macron held a pomp-filled ceremony at the Elysée Palace to fête and ‘benight’ more than 150 Olympic medal winners from the Tokyo 2020 Games with the Legion of Honor.

That’s not to say that the French do not participate in, practice, or consume sport – they very much do.

3. State the new outlook

Another step this summer’s Olympic hosts took in embedding cultural change was to enshrine the importance of the change in law. The landmark 1975 Mazeaud Law created the National Sports Institute (INSEP), where elite athletes could prepare for competition and the next generation of French athletes could complete their academic studies while training with some of the country’s best coaches, tacticians, and medical professionals. The law also, for the first time, conferred on sports a major consideration: “The development of the practice of sport and physical activities is a fundamental element of culture, which constitutes a national obligation.”

Despite this, the public remained impassive. The 1984 Avice Law sought to update its 1975 predecessor by enshrining sport and physical activity as part of the evolving ethos of the era as “important factors in the equilibrium and health of each person’s well-being” and conferred the practice of sport as a citizen’s right. Subsequent attempts to write sports into the cultural fabric fell short of creating a sporting culture.

That’s not to say that the French do not participate in, practice, or consume sport – they very much do. But it often remains relegated to the domain of leisure and entertainment, not considered on a par with other cultural endeavors, such as gastronomy, literature, art, or haute couture, demonstrating how a top-down-only approach cannot change an environment, although it can help set the tone.

4. Invest in people

By far the most transformative measure France took was to invest in youth detection and development pipelines. Football was one of the first to revolutionize in this arena. In the mid-1970s, through a program instituted at the French Football Federation’s (FFF) National Institute of Football and a parallel track among the top-flight professional club’s nascent youth academies, a nationwide system of identifying promising young talent and feeding it into the training pipeline was implemented and fine-tuned over time. This system allowed skilled teenagers to practice football at a high level and receive a small apprentice’s stipend while finishing their academic studies, although not every academy put as much emphasis on the scholastic side. Still, it sought to provide a pathway for sport while instilling the ideals of the republic as enshrined in the FFF’s values.

It began to pay dividends. This system helped resurrect French football at the international level in the 1980s as Les Bleus won the Olympic gold medal and the European Championship in 1984 and made deep runs at FIFA World Cups. By the 1990s, it put the FFF and France on the world stage when the team won the trophy on home soil in 1998. This blueprint was adapted by other sports, including basketball, the results of which began to flourish in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, this investment in people through formation à la française has put the Made in France brand on the global sporting map in football, basketball, and other sports. Chris Ebersole, Head of Elite Basketball at NBA Academy, called it “a culture of high performance that permeates” – and one that influenced the NBA’s construction of its youth academy network.

5. Connect outward performance with internal experience

Such top-level results are not always translatable to everyday life. For France, winning the right to host such global tournaments as the Gay Games and Ryder Cup in 2018, FIFA World Cup 2019, Rugby World Cup 2023, and Paris 2024 is not only part of the country’s internationally recognized gold-standard sports diplomacy strategy, but also a way to bring the cultural endeavor of sports directly into the everyday lives of citizens in new ways.

Take the example of FIFA France 2019. The responsibility to host fueled new investment in and attention to women’s football at all levels while fighting deeply seeded negative stereotypes about and lack of visibility for the women’s game. Efforts were made to encourage the populace to engage in and with football and that summer’s World Cup, particularly families and girls, from mediatization of the tournament and advertising campaigns by sponsors that featured national team members, to public service campaigns to encourage kids to play.

Although Les Bleues were knocked out of the competition during a semi-final against the eventual winners, the United States, tournament hosting impacted everyday citizens. They watched the games on television, and domestic viewing records for women’s football and the national team were shattered that summer. They attended matches and every arena in which France played was sold out, including the 48,000-seat Parc de Princes in Paris. They began to play in greater numbers; of the 1.79 million licensed football players in France for the 2019-20 season, 155,836 were women, a sizeable increase compared to the 85,022 registered female players for the 2014-15 season before France was named as the 2019 host. And they began to look favorably on women’s football, with some 88% of French surveyed indicating the tournament left them with favorable images of the game. Despite setbacks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, these trends increased, driven over the past year by Les Bleues’ Ligue of Nations Vice Championship and role hosting Paris 2024. In February, the number of women and girls in France who held a football license reached a record high of 247,160, a 12% increase from the previous season.

Despite these efforts, embedding a sports culture in France remains a work in progress. That’s not to say that cultural change should take decades in the making. Instead, it is illustrative of a whole-cloth approach: that building and embedding a new or different ethos requires an embrace and commitment from top leaders as well as investment at all levels, particularly in people, and how that culture impacts and influences their everyday.

One of the tantalizing aspects of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer is the hope that, finally, efforts to seed a sustained legacy grow more fully. Given the government’s multipronged embrace of sports, from its diplomatic corps to national and local efforts to infuse all aspects of civic life this summer with sports, change is in the air. Many athletes hope the festivities, despite the headaches, will finally inscribe sport as a recognized part of national culture.

Authors

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian, consultant, and author of Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA (Bloomsbury, 2023) and The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France 1958-2010 (Lexington Books, 2012). She is an Adjunct Instructor at New York University‘s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.

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