The stadium century traces the history of stadia and mass spectatorship in modern France from the vélodromes of the late nineteenth century to the construction of the Stade de France before the 1998 soccer World Cup, and argues that stadia played a privileged role in shaping mass society in twentieth-century France. Drawing off a wide range of archival and published sources, Robert W. Lewis links the histories of French urbanism, mass politics and sport through the history of the stadium in an innovative and original work that will appeal to historians, students of French history and the history of sport, and general readers alike. As The stadium century demonstrates, the stadium was at the centre of long-running debates about public health, national prestige and urban development in twentieth-century France. The stadium also functioned as a key space for mobilizing and transforming the urban crowd, in the twin contexts of mass politics and mass spectator sport. In the process, the stadium became a site for confronting tensions over political allegiance, class, gender, and place-based identity, and for forging particular kinds of cultural practices related to mass consumption and leisure. As stadia and the narratives surrounding them changed dramatically in the years after 1945, the transformed French stadium not only reflected and constituted part of the process of postwar modernisation, but also was increasingly implicated in global transformations to the spaces and practices of sport that connected France even more closely to the rest of the world.
This chapter focuses on the debates over the construction of a monumental, 100,000-person stadium in advance of the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The stadium’s advocates argued that it would spark a nationwide revival of French physical fitness, deemed critical in light of demographic anxieties generated by the First World War, while its detractors saw the stadium as an expensive space for parasitic mass spectatorship. Yet even the promoters of the Olympic Games (both in France and outside its borders) were leery of the crowds that they hoped to attract: they feared that the mass public was disorderly and dangerous, and that it showed an alarming propensity to seek out the ‘spectacle’ of sport rather than appreciate the latter’s higher moral and physical purpose. This ambivalence contributed to the Paris municipal council’s refusal to support the stadium. While the Olympics still took place, at a privately-owned stadium in the suburb of Colombes northwest of Paris, the Olympic stadium crisis ultimately revealed deep fractures over spectator sport as a matter of official public policy and in relation to urban development, and set the template for sporting practices and further debates that continued well into the 1950s.
This chapter explores how the stadium became central to a mode of political spectacle in France, from the mid-1920s up through the end of the Second World War, at a moment when it was also critical to politics elsewhere in Europe. A range of political luminaries and groups, from the anti-fascist Popular Front coalition to the Vichy regime, promoted stadium-based spectacles as a visible manifestation of political vitality, mass support and masculine citizenship. The stadium gave politicians a vast spectator space that proved ideal for staging political rallies, political plays or religious ceremonies that both aspired to transform spectators into active participants and that entailed efforts to discipline the public. But while the crowd may have been disciplined and mobilized inside the stadium, it also eluded those constraints and often disappointed those politicians seeking to create a unified public. In the years after the Second World War, the French stadium gradually disappeared as a pre-eminent staging-ground for mass politics, as the stadium crowd itself became progressively depoliticized.
The third chapter focuses on the stadium’s relationship to the efforts of French sporting elites to create a well-disciplined, deferential and masculine public at spectator sporting events in the period between 1918 and the mid-1950s. During this era, rugby, soccer and cycling became the pre-eminent spectator sports in France, promoted and analysed by a burgeoning media complex. Far from rejoicing at the burgeoning popularity of spectator sport, French sporting journalists and officials sought to ‘improve’ and reshape the crowd, both physically through the stadium and discursively in the narratives about ‘sporting education’ that surrounded it. However, these physical and rhetorical efforts to redefine the sporting public as respectable and masculine were continually undermined by the commercial logic of sport itself and the actual practices of male and female spectators present both inside and outside the stade. Faced with a public that resisted physical and rhetorical discipline and that created its own spectator experience, the journalists and sporting impresarios who promoted French sport slowly and somewhat begrudgingly came to recognize the crowd as a less overtly problematic public of male and female consumers which needed to be recruited and accommodated.
Spectatorship, territorial identity and global connections, 1900–60
Robert W. Lewis
This chapter turns to the ways in which stadia, sport and spectators both in France and elsewhere around the globe helped generate changing place-based communities and identities. French stadia created discourses about local places through the depiction of spectators within their confines. But stadium spectatorship also helped define the national collective, through literal and imaginary voyages within France and abroad to other stadia around the world. These latter voyages generated a series of comparisons that provided French men and women with convenient benchmarks for monitoring the perceived vitality and social cohesion of France in relation to its rivals on the world stage. These comparisons predominantly reinforced a sense of French inadequacy and decline throughout the interwar period, if not necessarily after the Second World War. At the same time, however, the comparisons with the wider world testified to the global character of sport itself in the first half of the twentieth century, as a mass media complex in Western Europe and North America publicised and promoted sporting competitions that helped create transnational communities of spectators invested in the same sporting events.
This chapter traces the increasingly rapid changes to stadia and sporting practices in France during the last half of the twentieth century, while simultaneously connecting those transformations to parallel developments beyond French frontiers. The new Parc des Princes, rebuilt between 1967 and 1972, reflected the ongoing processes of modernisation and urbanisation in France during the first thirty years after the Second World War. But the changes to sport and its spaces evident in the new Parc also constituted another aspect of postwar modernisation across Europe itself, constituted by efforts to reinvent mass spectatorship and to accommodate television broadcasting. The Stade de France’s completion in advance of the 1998 World Cup also showcased the way that the stadium in France was now optimistically envisioned as an anchor for highly-symbolic international sporting competitions that projected positive messages about French national prestige and sporting identity. At the same time, the changes to sport and sporting spaces in France were part of a process of sporting globalisation that reflected the increasingly common values placed on stadia as urban spaces in France and other countries in Europe, North America, Oceania and Asia.