Numéro 79 Septembre 1998Sports en ville
Public facilities and the institutions
which accompany them are at the core
of the present athletic system in France,
despite the development of sports outside
of clubs and associations. Stadiums,
swimming-pools, gyms or tennis
courts have thus followed the overall
trend of peripheral urbanization.
The sports complex of Le Lac in the
center of the Bordeaux urban area, is a
typical case of the federative intervention
of local communities which respects
the diversity of social spaces and
In half a century in France, athletic
facilities have moved from a condition
of scarcity of spaces to an abundance
of practice sites, from uniform to manifold
conceptions, from a single function
to a plurality of functions, and
from a unity of construction to an economic,
conceptual and social diversity.
In the midst of this evolution, the normalizing
intervention of the Welfare
State has played a determining role,
despite its ultimate, gradual disengagement.
The variations that one can
trace seem to obey a logic which is
more political than social.
The coexistence of two distinct athletic
dynamics, one which is banal and occurs
on the everyday level, « from below »,
and one which is governed by mercantile
interests, « from above », heralds the arrival
of the post-modern era in sports. As
an example of this in the United States,
witness the commercial evolution of the
New York Marathon, the media and
financial saga of the Brooklyn Dodgers
baseball team, or the profits of the Super
Bowl (the American football finals).
On a less publicized level, the free individual
practice of sports is having a
visible impact on American cities, from
the ghetto playground to the horse-back
riding club in an exclusive suburb. As for
spectacular sports, they are becoming
increasingly independent of local contingencies.
The street sports that many young people
participate in, apart from clubs or parallel
to them, are perceived negatively by
public authorities, which view them as
a threat to their community actions.
Yet their proliferation is governed by
forms of organization and discipline that
their followers impose on themselves.
So the latter take issue with local authorities
for not recognizing them as fullfledged
partners in the planning of city
activities. This communication problem
between young people and institutions
poses the question of the relevance of
the modes of public action on territorial
policies, in a particularly acute way.
The open-ended character of youthful
athletic gatherings goes hand in hand
with the freedom of playing. The alternation
between spontaneous games in
front of the projects, and team excursions
for games on a field outside the
neighborhood creates a rhythm of a
changing sociability, which cannot be
contained or comprehended by local
authorities. For most young athletes, the
discipline of official sports in a club is
not incompatible with autonomous initiatives,
outside the club. City policies
must take account of this intermingling
of practices which lie beyond any univocal
or functional relation between uses
In Lyon, young skate-boarders and roller-
skaters or -bladers fit in smoothly
into the urban spaces where they gather.
They often seek to attract the attention
of passersby with their stylistic flourishes.
As for mountain-bikers, who are
generally older, they choose non-urban
routes. Sports for sports’sake bring together
small groups of street basket-ball
players. However individualistic these
new sports may be, they transform the
uses of public space and develop a playful
vision of city life.
Urban « joggings » free from any collective
constraints, is a phenomenon
which is both spectacular and recent.
Running through the streets in pursuit
of physical well-being’runs’counter to
strict athletic rules. Racing on foot outside
of a stadium started out as a counter-
culture practice, but it has become a
part of the urban way of life which
affects all ages and social groups. The
individual cult of the healthy body and
the will to resist the negative physical
effects of the city explain this passion.
A new realm of free and autonomous
sports has been developing for the last
twenty years on the margins of professional
sports. The desire city-dwellers
feel for adventure of the’back to nature’type
plays an important role in this
development. The concept of a « sporting
adventure site », developed by a
team of researchers focusing on social
experimentation, turns urban facilities
into places where one can prepare and
train daily for various nature sports such
as mountain climbing or paragliding.
The financial viability or return on
investments of this type of facility is not
immediately apparent ; the resistance on
the part of athletic clubs has hindered
its experimental implementation.
Grenoble, which was an Olympic City
in 1968, initially promoted large-scale
athletic activities, before giving way ten
years later to pressure groups in favor of
élite sports which have greater commercial
significance and media coverage.
In recent years, the divergence between
the interests of public authorities
and private investors, on the national
and on the local level, has induced Grenoble’s
local government to return to a
better balance between a politics of prestige
and a politics of social action.
Athletic facilities use up a good deal of
space and funding, and their distribution
within the urban area is uneven. Yet
the differences in socio-professional
structure between municipal districts do
not seem to have an effect on the level
of local athletic facilities. Former working-
class suburbs undergoing a transformation
into the tertiary sector actually
seem to be the best equipped locations,
in quantitative terms. The result then is
a growing disparity between the close
suburban area, which has adequate
facilities, and the extended suburban
area, which does not, despite the paradoxical
fact that the demand there is
greater, for demographic reasons.
There appears to be more activity involving
athletic associations in the periphery
of the Strasbourg urban area than
in its center, despite the presence of facilities
and a level of use which are higher
in the central municipal district. Recent
peripheral urbanization has included the
creation of clubs, which are used and
organized mainly by a population of
managers and employees in the tertiary
sector. Nonetheless, a popularlevel, traditional
sport such as football lives on in
the clubs of the former working class.
Local social history explains the differences
in athletic practices from one
municipal district to another, within a
given living environment.
Football runs through the city, both due
to the major club which it gives credibility
to, and through the little games
that take place spontaneously at the foot
of various buildings. Football as it is
played by federations has its restricted
spaces, namely, stadiums, as well as predefined
times and hierarchies (ratings).
In contrast, the neighborhood game
seeks out environments, takes place at
any moment, creates its rules as it goes
along, and inverts roles. Yet both models
come together in a shared passion for
the creativity and virtuosity of the game.
The football spectator is the link between
these two universes which are the
same and different at the same time.
The success of the Paris-Saint-Germain
club, the star of the capital, is a reflection
of the image of present-day Paris,
a patchwork metropolis where tertiary
sector jobs and managers predominate.
The youthful fans of this club come
from suburban housing projects, and
give vivid expression to how different
they are from the life of a club which
has become a capitalist company.
Conversely, the rise of the Olympique
club of Noisy-le-Sec, a small suburban
club, supports and illustrates popular
ethnic identity, with its values of mutual
assistance and local solidarity. Two
clubs two social models ; on the one
hand, the spectactular marketing
concern, and on the other, the ties of
The recent creation of the Stade de
France in Saint-Denis, a jewel of architecture
in athletics, is a typical product
of the meeting of the world of business,
football, the State, and a gradually
reemerging industrial suburb.
The Achilles heel of this major project
is the issue of the club that could support
this facility after the World Cup.
The financial profits and urban amenities
that the project is supposed to
bring have yet to be seen. Its symbolic
appropriation is still to come ; it will
undoubtedly reveal the power struggles
waged over the great stadium.
In France and Great Britain, town councils
manage sport activities for young
immigrants. In France, they delegate the
job of organising them to sport unions
producing a multicultural public. In Great
Britain, town councils negociate directly
with deputes of ethnic minorities.