David Owen: Anglo-Gallic relations put to test once more on battlefields of... canoeing and handball
Sunday, 29 July 2012
But unlike, say, the good-natured antagonism colouring relations between Britain and Australia, it has generally been pursued outside the realm of sport.
Britain and France have spent entire centuries at war with one another; we deprecate their fighting spirit as they ridicule our food.
But the two nations' most consistently intense arena of sporting combat has arguably been the rugby field.
And, of course, there the French take on the Brits one nation at a time.
London 2012, coming hot on the heels of the first-ever Tour de France to be dominated by Brits, may do something to change this state of affairs.
Not least because it was nearly Paris 2012.
I spent the first Sunday of the Games looking at two examples of Britanno-Gallic rivalry, one established, the other brand spanking new.
First, it was off to Hertfordshire – or was it Essex? – to the remarkable Lee Valley White Water Centre, where Aberdeen's David Florence, the world number-one and a Beijing 2008 silver medallist, and double Olympic champion Tony Estanguet of France were the last two to go in the heats of the men's C1 canoe slalom.
With 15 other boats in the field, these two were never going to have things all their own way and it was the ultra-experienced Michal Martikan of Slovakia who produced the day's outstanding performance, surging from last to first place with a second, well, voyage through the white water of astonishing poise and strength.
"If anyone can Martikan can" as one of the unabashedly perky – bur evidently well informed – course commentators jauntily put it.
Estanguet's qualification for the semi-finals was never in doubt: the Frenchman steered his red, white and blue tricouleur boat with aplomb through the water, being pumped out at a rate of 60 bathfuls a second, to navigate his way through the 22 gates – some of them upstream – in one of the day's fastest times.
Florence, though, had to qualify the hard way after a mistake-riddled opening run left him in 13th place.
With the pressure on, as last man on the course in a canoe striped in Scottish blue and white, this he duly did, roared on by a crowd that managed to be both partisan and eclectic at the same time.
Later in the evening, the enclosed space of the Copper Box was rocking still more raucously as the British men made their Olympic handball debut with the small matter of a match against reigning Olympic champions France.
The sport in Britain has come a long way since a few years ago when I watched a top women's match in an anonymous hall in South Ruislip so small there was scarcely any room for spectators.
But this was never going to be anything other than a mismatch.
The high point for the red-shirted Brits came on 1min 48sec when they took the lead to a huge roar from the enthusiastic crowd (no empty seats here).
This lead lasted exactly 24 seconds.
The writing was on the wall long before star player Steven Larsson was red-carded early in the second half.
The final score, 44-15, did not flatter the Olympic champions.
Even so, the team departed to a good reception – actually a standing ovation – from their supporters, who persisted in treating the white-shirted French as pantomime villains.
You have to start somewhere: the two French football teams which took part in the 1908 London Olympics were both eliminated by Denmark, by an aggregate score of 26-1.
Exactly 90 years later, France were world champions.
A "proud" Larsson's comment on the defeat: "You have to think about who we are playing against.
"This is the Barcelona of handball."
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed by clicking here.