In August 1936, shortly after African-American track star Jesse Owens won a sensational four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games, the editor of France's leading sports magazine L'Auto called upon French colonial authorities to find and recruit athletically talented black Africans who would be able to "represent the French race in a dignified manner" at international competitions. French runners and throwers had cut a poor figure in Berlin, and their failures before the eyes of the world were regarded as a national humiliation for France.
Accordingly, on Dec. 3, 1937, a search party sponsored by the magazine sailed from Bordeaux on a mission to study the athletic potential of the inhabitants of French West Africa. These sports missionaries eventually arrived in Senegal and were received by the highest colonial officials.
The result of this talent search was the sobering discovery that the explorers had completely misunderstood the relationship between sport and their colonial subjects. The Africans, unlike their African-American counterparts, showed little aptitude for sport. On the contrary, these impoverished and undernourished people needed sport as a therapy to restore their health. The search for children who might be future athletes was abandoned.
Half a century later, racial sensibilities have evolved, but European agents and coaches are still on the lookout for black talent to make them rich. And as the majority-African roster that France fielded at this year's World Cup attests, many have succeeded. But after a lackluster performance that saw the French squad sent home after the first round amid a swirl of scandals and accusations, the complicated relationship between race and sports has re-emerged in the public discourse in a very ugly way.
The recent uproar began after the entire French team refused to attend a training session following the expulsion of a teammate. The player in question, Nicolas Anelka, had shouted obscenities at the coach, Raymond Domenech, during the halftime of France's 0-2 pasting by Mexico on June 17. When the French media began calling this action a "strike" and a "mutiny," the escalation of the incident into a crisis took on a political dimension that is best explained as post-colonial drama, as indispensable black talent confronted the white authority figure whose job it was to keep them under control.
The denigration of France's North and sub-Saharan African athletes has been a favorite theme of the French extreme right for years. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic founder of the racist Front National, declared in 1996 that the French national soccer team was unacceptable on patriotic grounds because of the number of "foreigners" -- i.e., nonwhite citizens -- who had been selected to represent France. Some players' refusal to sing the national anthem became a sore point that persists to this day.
But after the mostly black French soccer team's defiance of its white leaders in South Africa, Le Pen's racist critique of multiracial sport has entered the French political mainstream with a vengeance. It was the French minister of health and sports, Roselyne Bachelot -- hardly a fringe figure -- who recently called the older players "gang leaders" who were tyrannizing "frightened boys" on the national squad. During the 1990s, it was only the French extreme right that ridiculed the idea that multiracial sport could facilitate racial integration in France. Now the derision directed against the indiscipline of a "black" team and the implicit failure of sport's integrative role in French society rains down from across the political spectrum.
Never mind that Domenech is universally thought of as an incompetent clown. The scandal's psychopolitical shock produced an extraordinary and almost unanimous chorus of criticism and abuse from the entire French political class. "Is this going to tarnish the image of France?" asked Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "How are young people going to respect their professors when they see Anelka insulting his trainer?" asked Minister for Higher Education Valérie Pécresse.