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A Beginner's Guide to the (French) Olympics


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There's nothing like attending a live event of any kind. The atmosphere, the noise, the buzz - just doesn't come across on the telly. But for most of us, that's exactly how we'll be “experiencing" these Olympics - from the comfort (or not) of our own sitting room.

It's always fascinating being a foreigner living abroad, no more so perhaps than during the games.

After all you get a chance to see and understand a little more of the national psyche of your adopted land - especially as all the fair-weather sports friends suddenly seem to pop out of the woodwork to support their countrymen in the most unlikely of sports.

Unlikely, only in the sense that they might not be ones which receive much exposure back in your country of origin, but at which your host country seems to excel.

Such is the case with France - where the media has devoted a fair amount of time to the exploits of home grown talent in several sports, so much so that one particular foreigner has been left feeling more than a little perplexed.

Now there's no snootiness involved in the assessment of any of the sports that follow, but there's a distinct lack of television coverage at the best of times (even here in France) and some mind-spinning vocabulary to describe the moves and the rules of certain competitions. But during the Olympics these sports, it seems, come into their own.

Grabbing and grappling

Take judo for example, in which France has something of a recent rich tradition thanks especially to the exploits of David Douillet, now retired, but twice an Olympic champion.

Who, for example, knows what a “Uki Goshi" is - let alone what it looks like. Apparently it's a floating hip throw in judo, only to be matched in terms of the uninitiated viewer's inability to fathom out what's happening by the “Uchi Mata “- an inner thigh throw.

Both score points, or so the commentators insist, and neither looks anything more than one competitor grabbing hold of another and flinging them around the ring.

And grabbing seems to be a specialty in judo - at least among the men. What is it with the way they seem to spend so much time trying to pull off each other's “dressing gowns" (no that's probably not the right term, but that's certainly what they look like) as they do grappling on the floor?

That neat transition from grabbing to grappling of course leads in to Greco-Roman wrestling. For if it's a good bout of the latter you're after, then you need look no further.

Actually technically speaking, that's not true and even though it's yet again another of those sports that to the clueless seems to have few rules, it apparently differs from its cousin “freestyle" in not allowing any use of the legs to make contact. So not proper “grappling" then after all.


France won gold for the first time since 1924 when Steeve (yes there really are that many “e"s in his name) Guenot took the 66kgs title, while his brother Christophe took bronze in the 74kgs.

The boys must have had a very interesting childhood.


Anyone even slightly familiar with the fictional exploits of Alexandre Dumas’ account of the real life Charles de Batz aka D'Artagnan will realise which sport we're headed over to next. Fencing.

But forget about the romantic duels with Athos, Porthos or Aramis. The modern day version is very state-of-art and surely one that nobody outside of the sport can possibly understand.

Down the years it seems to have worked pretty well for the French, many of whom are multiple medal winners, and the commentary team try their best to explain - if you can call excited shouting and yelling into the microphone when a French competitor is involved either “commentary" or “explanation".

Be it foil, épée or sabre class, to the ignorant it just looks like stabbing at your opponent and then gesturing in the air every time a red or green light goes off. You see, both competitors are hooked up to some electronic contraption that sets off a light when a hit or point is scored.

Makes you wonder what they did before in the old-fangled days.

Second chance

Then when you thought that you had seen the end of a particular competitor or that the competition had finished, you're forced to think again.

For another wonderfully complicated principle that becomes much used during the Olympics is that of the repechage.

Apparently it's a procedure that allows a competitor or a team that has already lost a second bite at the cherry - a sort of chance to redeem yourself.

So in judo, wrestling or rowing for example, it's not unusual for someone to make a reappearance later in the competition - even at the bronze medal stage - who you probably thought had been knocked out long ago.

It's even written into the scheduling of the competition. Take a look and you'll see. Presumably the organisers decided that a simple knock out style didn't provide enough meat in some sports and decided to “beef them up" a bit.

Chauvinistic commentary

A classic example of French commentary, which is probably universal depending on where you're actually watching the games - is how once a French competitor is no longer in the running, the sport stops being of real interest.

Yes, chauvinism in all its glory raises its ugly little head with alarming frequency. Such was the case in the climax of the three day eventing on Monday evening (CET) here in France.

With just five horses left to jump, a French competitor lying in bronze position was hustled out of the medals by a rider from another country and the special Olympic coverage decided to switch sports - to wrestling!

Those left wondering who had won or even placed in the medals, were left to look elsewhere.

Aye. It can be grand trying to follow the Olympics with a definite French twist on the whole thing.

Perhaps though the icing on the Olympic commentary cake so far here in France came in the men's gymnastics. Once again the team of experts managed to scream themselves hoarse to the bitter end of a competition in which a Frenchman, Benoît Caranobe was unexpectedly placed to take the bronze medal.

When one of his few remaining threats, the German Fabian Hambuechen, took to the horizontal bar during the last “rotation" the babbling in the box increased (as though viewers would be unable to watch and see for themselves) and the obvious joy and smile in the commentators’ voices as he fell, thus securing bronze for France was a sound if not a sight to behold - repeated quickly in slowmo of course.

Ah yes, it is fascinating being a foreigner living abroad during the Olympics. You do indeed get an insight into the psyche of your adopted country.

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at


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