How to Get Your Sport On in France

Updated 2011-08-11 09:58

I am an incorrigible sportif. A total addict. I’ll play any game, with anyone, anywhere. It’s just the way I am. When I moved to France from the United States in 2006, I naturally assumed that this would be an easy thing to perpetuate: if I could find ways to run, ride, skate, etc. in the most obese and inactive country the world has ever known, how hard could it be to do so in active, fit, mixed-use Europe? Pas évident, as it turned out: here are a few reasons why.

The License

Driving a car isn't the only thing for which you need a license in France.

When one wants to, say, run a road race in the US one need simply show up at the appropriate time and place, pay a small fee, pin a number to ones shirt and sign a little piece of paper suggesting that race organizers are not liable in the event of accidental injury. The rest is obvious.

Not so in France. A vast majority of athletes have a license (license) granted them by a national organization specific to their sport. This organization keeps track of statistics, determines rules of play, certifies courses and playing fields, helps sponsor and organize events and provides health and liability insurance coverage for members (licenciés) and member clubs. Once per year, normally in September, practitioners pay a small membership fee, provide a medical aptitude certificate (certificat médical, see below) and receive a license, which in turn gives them easy access to relevant events, the above-mentioned insurance and, often, official rankings (classement) based on event results.

In the case of activities like distance running'a solitary sport if there ever was one'it is possible to participate in some events without a license and/or medical certificate, but it comes with a price: you can't be timed! You have to register as a randonneur, or 'walker/jogger,' and your name does not appear in the official results...idea being, I suppose, that you're less likely to have a heart attack if you're not gunning for an impressive place in the final standings. What fun is that?

If you want to play a team sport in any sort of regular fashion, you pretty much need to join a club and get licensed. Same for any sport involving a field, court or other infrastructure: there are, for example, relatively few public-access tennis courts in France, and almost no golf courses that will grant tee times to unlicensed folk.

The bottom line is that you're not going to get very far without a license, and you're not going to get a license without'¦

The Medical Certificate

That's right: if you don't have an up-to-date and sport-specific medical release form, most French amateur sporting events don't want of you. No matter that you only want to golf, go bowling or play organized pétanque, the laziest game known to man: if Doc doesn't sign the sheet, you're not playing. Even if you don't want to get a license in your chosen sport, participation in a given event will almost surely require a certificat médical. It's just the way it is.

I try and look at it as an excuse to go see my doctor once a year. Sometimes he makes me do something sporty right there in the office to see if he can make my heart explode. When I turn 40 next year, he says I have to get a stress test in order to get my annual pile of certificates (remember, one for each sport...). While I find the whole idea mildly irritating, it can't hurt to see your doctor once a year, can it?

Finding The Club That You (probably) Have to Join

French sportifs are pretty into their clubs. One look at the results of a road race (cours à pied) or competitive cycling event (cyclosportif) reveals that about 75% of the finishers (and virtually all of the good ones) log their club affiliation. They often wear matching club uniforms (logical in cycling, perhaps not so much for running?). Although many clubs are omnisport'i.e. affiliations of several sports who share administrative apparatus and some facilities'most people are involved with only one activity: nobody here seems to understand why I want to do more than one sport. What's more, many see their clubs as an important aspect of their social lives: if I spent as much time at the tennis club as some of my fellow members, I wouldn't have the time to do anything else.

If you're a team sport sort of person, you're going nowhere without a club. Pick-up soccer and basketball do exist, but decent facilities are scarce. I spent two years trying unsuccessfully to find people and tennis courts to facilitate my tennis habit; when I finally broke down and joined a club it all became clear. Suddenly I was connected with 100+ other players, had access to private courts, found a place on a team and had a weekly group lesson tailored to my playing level...all for a price that wouldn't get you in the door of an American club. Also, clubs will often take care of the licensing process for you: you provide the paperwork (i.e. inscription form and certificat médical), and a few weeks later you get your license by email, which also serves as proof of insurance. No sweat! Lists of local clubs and events can be found all over the 'Net, but a good place to start is by googling 'fédération française de [activity name]'; there's a good chance it exists!

One caveat: it's best to sign up in September. While most clubs/fédérations will allow people to sign up at other times of the year, fees are usually not pro-rated and it can be harder to integrate in mid-season.

Games People Play: The Ten Most Popular Sports Fédérations in France

While there is a club and/or a fédération for just about every activity that involves getting off the couch, here are the ten most common amateur sports in France (ranked by number of members*):

1) Soccer (football): 2,225,595 members (licenciés)
No surprise here. The world's most popular sport is also France's. Soccer is ubiquitous across all ages and ability levels.

2) Tennis (tennis): 1,125,201
The number of tennis clubs in France is astounding. What's more, many of them are affordable and decidedly not country-club in character.

3) Horseback riding (équitation): 650,437
The French are nuts for horses, and not just the kind that upon which people bet the dog food money. Also, horseback riding is very accessible to'and popular amongst'children. Never mind that they also eat them (horses, not children).

4) Judo (judo): 574,223
Who knew? The fighting arts are alive and well in France, and judo is king (karaté being a distant second).

5) Basketball (basket): 449,263
It's not just Tony Parker anymore: a growing number of French players are leaving their mark on perhaps the only American game to go 100% international.

6) Golf (golf): 410,377
Golf people in France have taken great pains to undo their sport's snobby image, and it's starting to bear fruit: this number represents a 30% increase from just a few years ago. Still, golf courses (terrains de golf) are rare, and the casual players that keep most American courses in business are almost non-existent here. I miss playing the occasional round of golf, but not badly enough to join yet another club.

7) Handball (handball, commonly abbreviated hand): 392,761
The greatest sport that nobody in the States plays! Handball is worth a look for people who like team sports but don't go in for soccer, basketball or...

8) Rugby (rugby): 322,231
France is one of the world's great rugby nations. More popular than soccer in the southwestern part of the country, rugby offers fantastic camaraderie, whole-body fitness and, at the pro level, one of the greatest stadium experiences around. If I were only built for it...

9) Pétanque: 315,951
Although perhaps pushing the envelope of what is and what is not a sport, pétanque is both an institution in southern France and a total blast to play...though in a pétanque club you're more likely to grow a beer belly than get rid of one.

10) Swimming (natation): 286,392
Proximity to large bodies of water must have something to do with it. Indeed, if this list went to eleven like Nigel Tufnel's amplifier we would next find sailing, with over 250,000 members.

*All numbers taken from the 2009 official report of the Minister of Sport, which can be downloaded here:

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