the forgotten coronation of French polo players 100 years ago

the forgotten coronation of French polo players 100 years ago

Bordeaux (AFP) – Forever the pioneers! 100 years ago, polo players became the first French team sport selection to win an Olympic title. It was already in Paris, at a time when only 4% of French people knew how to swim.

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Long before footballers (1984), handball players (2008, 2012, 2021), handball players (2021) and volleyball players (2021), it was a group of amateur swimmers who won the Olympic Grail, the only gold medal never won by France in water polo.

A performance that their 2024 successors, surprise semi-finalists of the last World Championships in February in Doha, dream of imitating this summer, during the Paris Games, the qualifying phases of which will take place at the Olympic Aquatic Center (CAO) in Saint-Denis, inaugurated this Thursday.

A century ago, in a France then lacking in nautical infrastructure – only 27 swimming pools in 1924 compared to 1362 in Germany for example -, and despite the existence of a decree of 1879 making swimming compulsory in schools and in the army, this success was considered an achievement.

A great leader of the French Swimming and Lifesaving Federation persisted in predicting our elimination. It did not happen and the final success was the most beautiful response and the most beautiful snub that could be dreamed of. », Henri Padou said afterwards.

A butcher-tripper in civilian life and spearhead of this team, Padou was considered in the interwar period as the greatest water polo player in the world.

The USA without Weissmuller

International from 1919 to 1946, he was again part of the bronze medal team in Amsterdam in 1928 and the 4th place team in Berlin in 1936.

His retirement coincided with the end of the golden age of French men’s water polo, which then only participated in the Olympics five times from 1948 to 2016.

In 1924, the French team was far from being a leader in the discipline. It had only won two matches – against the Netherlands – since its debut in 1909.

And the seven French players making it up had never been lined up together in an official match before their first Olympic meeting against the United States, in the Parisian swimming pool at Les Tourelles. Five came from the Tourcoing club founded by Paul Beulque, “the father” of swimming in France, the other two from the Libellule de Paris.

Confident, the Americans had decided to do without Johnny Weissmuller, the future Tarzan, an excellent polo player who, after winning three Olympic swimming titles (100 m, 400 m and 4×200 m) for the start of the competition. , helped them win bronze.

The French took advantage of this to win in overtime (3-1), before beating the Netherlands in the quarter-final (6-3), then Sweden in the half (4-2), their fiercest match of the competition.

In the final, the Tricolores did not start as favorites against the Belgians whom they had never beaten (1 draw, 10 defeats until then). But, supported by the public, they clearly dominated them, thanks to a double from Robert Desmit, top scorer of the tournament with 9 goals, and a third goal from the inevitable Padou (3-0).